Democrats said Wednesday that they failed to do their job in 2000 and 2002 and pledged to put millions of dollars into an outreach program aimed at igniting a pro-Democratic vote among Hispanic Americans in November.

"I think what we have to recognize is that the mainstream Washington Democratic Party has been slow to recognize the changes that are going on" regarding the surge of Hispanic immigrants in the Southwestern states, said Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of the New Democrat Network (search), a private group founded during the Clinton administration to support centrist Democratic candidates.

"The Gore campaign missed this in 2000. In the Southwest, we didn’t even target Arizona and Nevada in 2000," he said.

"We have to work very, very hard as a party," said Sergio Bendixen, a pollster working with NDN's Hispanic Project, which has taken the lead this time around through a massive advertising campaign in key Hispanic battleground states: Arizona, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

So far it appears that some of the work is paying off. According to polling earlier this month by Bendixen's group, John Kerry (search) is leading President Bush by 18 percentage points overall in the key Hispanic battleground states.

A new poll released Wednesday by Democratic polling company Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that Hispanic respondents preferred Kerry to Bush 63 to 29 percent.

"Kudos to NDN for beginning to make strides, in trying to speak to Hispanics," said Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, who is featured in one of the new ads with other familiar Latino elected officials.

Carrion said neither party really knows how "to talk to Hispanic voters," but he's happy that NDN is putting so much effort into reaching out. Nonetheless, he added, looking at the nightly dais at the convention, "there is still an absence of Latinos prominently placed — our party is still falling short."

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (search) recently predicted that 7 million Latinos will go to the polls in November — about 1 million more than in 2000.

The group also projected this spring that Hispanics are giving Kerry the lead in New Mexico and Arizona by such a wide margin that it actually is putting those states into play this year. Kerry is still falling behind Bush in Florida — a stronghold for pro-Republican Cuban-Americans and Nicaraguans — 54 percent to 36 percent, according to NALEO.

However, given the high stakes in Florida — the center of the recount firestorm in the 2000 election — any movement within that Hispanic voter base could prove important, said Rosenberg.

Bendixen told an audience at a New Democrat Network-sponsored event at the Democratic National Convention that Bush could be given credit for taking "the modern-day Republican Party into a competitive position within the Hispanic community," but now the Democrats' job is to convince Latinos (search) that they are better on the issues — in particular, jobs, the economy, education and health care.

"Our goal is to educate this fast-growing community," said Maria Cardona, head of the Hispanic Project (search). "We are educating on our values and on the issues we fight for every day."

The project has so far raised $5 million to run ads in battleground states underscoring what they say are common themes among Latinos: the search for better jobs and better wages, as well as access to universal health care. Some of the ads, shown to the audience on Wednesday, used a negative approach to discuss Bush policies.