WASHINGTON – The major political parties are hoping bilingual phone banks, booths at Latin street festivals and television ads on Spanish-language networks will boost voter turnout among the nation's largest minority group.
But for which candidate?
"Latinos have shown they will dance with any party and defy predictions," said Marcelo Gaete, senior director of programs for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (search) in Los Angeles.
Although Latinos typically lean Democratic -- exit polls show Al Gore won 62 percent of their vote in 2000 -- Republicans are optimistic they can build on the 35 percent that President Bush (search) won among Hispanics four years ago. In 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole received just 21 percent.
How Hispanics vote and whether they go to the polls in large numbers could swing this year's presidential race in Colorado, Florida and other tight battleground states. Numbering close to 40 million, Hispanics passed blacks as the nation's largest minority several years ago, according to the Census Bureau (search).
The wild card is what the campaigns and advocacy groups say are hundreds of thousands of new Hispanic registered voters, many of whom are recently naturalized immigrants.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that 7 million Hispanics will vote this year, up 1 million from 2000. That year, 45 percent of voting-age Hispanic citizens went to the polls, compared to 57 percent of blacks and 62 percent of whites.
Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry (search) have done especially well in communicating through Hispanic media and ad campaigns, especially in battleground states, says Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project (search) at Johns Hopkins University.
A historic Hispanic turnout could benefit Kerry, Segal says. The most recent poll, conducted in July by the Pew Hispanic Center (search), showed Latinos preferring the Massachusetts Democrat over the incumbent Republican by a 2-to-1 margin.
However, Gaete says Hispanic voters have recently become a little more unpredictable, citing the better-than-exepcted support that the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, received from non-Cuban Hispanics in his 2002 re-election bid.
Bush won Florida in 2000 by a scant 537 votes, though he scored about a 4-to-1 advantage among Cubans. Despite Jeb Bush's win, an influx of non-Cuban Hispanics into the state has Democrats thinking they can improve among the state's diverse Latino population.
Republicans hope Cuban-born Senate candidate Mel Martinez will get Latinos siding with the GOP. Democrats think Kerry may enjoy the same carry-over effect in Colorado, where Attorney General Ken Salazar, a Hispanic, is running for the Senate.
Such high-profile statewide races may help increase Hispanic turnout overall in those states. Bush and Kerry have also targeted two other western battlegrounds, Nevada and New Mexico, as especially crucial for turning out Hispanics.
Both campaigns have Hispanic outreach Web sites in English and Spanish. Bush has spent $5 million for ads on Spanish-language print and broadcast outlets, while the New Democrat Network, a moderate group, has spent $6 million on ads since March to raise political awareness and encourage Latinos to vote Democratic.
On the ground, the Republican National Committee boasts of 17,000 Hispanic "team leaders" across the country to generate GOP support. That's in addition to the Bush campaign's bilingual phone banks and "Viva Bush" volunteers in 30 states.
Kerry brags of "Unidos con Kerry-Edwards," or United with Kerry-Edwards, on his Web site, and a similar army of volunteers phoning voters, knocking on doors and manning information booths at Latino festivals.
Republicans and Democrats have improved their grass-roots outreach, but still have more to do, said Janet Murguia, executive director of the National Council of La Raza (search), the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group.
"The point we'd like to underscore is for us to have sustained efforts day after day," Murguia said.