Democrats hold an edge with Hispanics in national elections, but Latinos' growing tendency to register as independents and split their vote between parties is buoying Republican prospects for 2008.

Younger and college-educated Hispanics in particular offer fertile ground for Republicans, new data shows. And while no one suggests Republicans have become the party of choice for the United States' fastest-growing minority, Democrats have been gradually losing ground.

"The Democrats began in the 1980s to slowly lose Latino registration," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a San Antonio-based research group that studies Hispanic issues. "It's drip, drip, drip."

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Bush claimed 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, a record for a Republican presidential candidate. But it will be challenging for the party to repeat or build on that performance — Bush's popularity has withered and many Hispanics were soured by remarks by Republican conservative hard-liners during the immigration debate.

Although Hispanics tend to vote Democratic, the percentage of Latinos who call themselves Democrats has declined in the last decade, even as the overall number of Hispanic voters climbed.

In California — home to the country's largest Hispanic population and a key state for the 2008 presidential election — nearly two of three Hispanic voters were registered Democrats in the mid-1990s. By 2006, that figure dropped as low as 56 percent, according to polling and registration data.

Research last year by the Public Policy Institute of California found that Hispanics in California are about equally divided among those who describe themselves as conservative, liberal and moderate.

And many Hispanic voters are choosing no party at all.

In 2002, the institute said 18 percent of likely Hispanic voters were registered as independents or some other party. By 2006, the percentage had climbed to 22 percent. Republicans gained a few percentage points in registration over that time.

Democrats continue to hold a healthy advantage with Hispanics, and nearly seven in 10 Hispanic voters supported Democratic congressional candidates last year. Party leaders say independent Hispanics lean Democratic, so the registration percentage dip is not as significant as the figures might suggest.

"They may have left ... the party, but they haven't left the Democrats," said California Democratic Chairman Art Torres. "It's both a state and a national trend."

Economic and generational forces are influencing Hispanic politics.

Hispanics identify themselves as Democrats by at least a 2-1 margin, but younger people are more likely to register as independents and are more willing to split tickets, said Lindsay Daniels, a voter registration coordinator for the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group.

Younger voters in the country "are not sold necessarily on one party or the other," she said. "Latinos are very similar."

To Gonzalez, "the big story is the growth of independents."

Democratic pollster Andre Pineda, who is advising New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's presidential campaign, conducted research after the November 2006 elections that identified a generational shift in Hispanic voter patterns.

Pineda said Hispanic immigrants who become citizens and register to vote become Democrats in nearly 70 percent of the cases, with Republican registration at 18 percent. In the next generation, Democratic registration drops to 56 percent and Republican registration increases to 25 percent. By the third U.S.-born generation, Democratic and Republican registration among Hispanics is nearly equal.

While newer arrivals to the United States feel more strongly about immigration issues, subsequent generations share the concerns of Main Street America — the war, taxes, education, crime, he said.

"We need to ... make our case on those issues, otherwise we are going to lose them," Pineda said.

Republican polling in the California governor's race last year found that college-educated Hispanics who make more than $60,000 a year are more receptive to Republican ideas than are those with less education and income.

Such findings are mirrored in the experience of Angel Sanchez. The 35-year-old Riverside banker grew up in a home with deep Hispanic roots — he was taught to trust the Roman Catholic church, work hard, and on election day, to vote Democratic.

But as a young man he registered as a Republican, drawn to the party's messages on limited government, law and order and national defense. His parents reacted as if he had broken faith.

"They thought almost to the point I was being foolish," recalled Sanchez, who is now active in Republican politics. He says the party is doing a better job of reaching out to Hispanics and now counts his parents among the converts.

Republican media consultant Frank Guerra, who worked on Bush's campaigns, said Hispanics are becoming more discerning in political choices as well as consumer purchasing.

"They are not just going to give away their vote anymore," Guerra said. "We were deeply brand-loyal. It's changing."

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