SAN ANTONIO – It all comes down to Ohio and Texas for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and every vote counts.
In Texas, the candidates know that young Latinos may hold the key to winning the state. Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of eligible voters and the majority of them are under the age of 40.
We hit the University of Texas at San Antonio (nearly 29,000 students) to talk to young, first-time voters about Tuesday's primary. They can't wait to take part. Denise Perez, a senior and Hillary Clinton supporter says, "Texas hasn't been in the spotlight with the primaries before and our vote is going to count."
Because of early voting, some have already cast their ballots.
So how are the candidates faring among young Latinos? State-wide surveys of all voters are too close to call and there are no polls indicating where young Latinos are leaning, but Clinton and McCain supporters agree that Obama is doing the best job appealing to their peers. His team is better organized and more effective at connecting to younger voters.
"Who does the best job reaching out?" I asked two Clinton voters, an Obama volunteer and two McCain backers. "Obama," said Enrique Vasquez, a college senior, "and I'm a Republican!"
Andres Bocanegra, a junior and fellow McCain backer, said he was disappointed that the candidate had not visited their campus. (On this day, McCain was in San Antonio.)
The same sentiment was echoed in Ohio when we talked to Republicans at Ohio State University. They also hoped to hear from McCain, fearing that if he didn't reach out to young voters, Obama would snatch them up.
Obama is captivating them with his broad smile, can-do attitude and offers of government benefits.
Recently Obama announced a student tuition plan, which would enable many to earn the first $4,000 of tuition through community service. This would go a long way toward helping to pay for college says Jaime Solis, a San Antonio student who backs Obama.
"But Texas is supposed to be Clinton territory," I said to the group, reminding them that the couple had worked in San Antonio as organizers for George McGovern in the early 1970s and had appointed Latinos to prominent cabinet positions. Well, it seems that's ancient history. After all, these students weren't even alive when the Clintons were spending time here. However, that is a fact that has not been forgotten by their parents, they say.
"What about immigration policy?" I asked. "How important is this?" Obama supporter Jaime Solis said, "It's one of the top issues because of the proximity to the border."
The students told me their families have deep roots in Mexico and some still have relatives there. Each of the students felt strongly that a border wall would not be effective. "Build a wall 10 feet, they'll just build an 11 foot ladder," said Andres Bocanegra, a college junior and McCain supporter.
The Arizona Republican has a tougher immigration policy than Clinton and Obama, but that doesn't seem to hurt him among Latinos, according to the students. "He will be a tough opponent," admits Perez, a Clinton backer.
McCain argues for tightening borders, implementing a temporary worker program and punishing employers that hire illegals — a stance that's not tough enough, say McCain's conservative critics.
Clinton says she would consider stopping federal raids against undocumented workers, halting the border fence — which she calls "absurd" — and would pursue a legalization plan for illegals if they aren't in legal trouble, learn English and pay a fine. The students like her plan.
Obama's plan isn't that different from Clinton's except that he would allow illegals to get driver's licenses. (Clinton danced around this issue, first endorsing this, then backing away.) The students — Republicans and Democrats — felt that this was an appropriate measure.
While immigration is an important issue for young Latinos, the economy and the war also matter.
With just four days to go before the primary, the candidates are making their final pitch to Texans. These first-time voters know that their ballots — and opinions — count and can't wait to make a difference.
Interesting facts: According to a 2007 survey by Texas Lyceum, 44 percent of Latinos polled identified themselves as Democrats, 38 percent as Independents and 18 percent described themselves as Republican.
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