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Published December 01, 2016
Bernie Sanders' image gazes out from a corner storefront in Boyle Heights, a Hispanic enclave known for its plump burritos and a plaza where mariachis strum guitars. It's here that his campaign is going house to house to cut into Hillary Clinton's advantage with Latino voters.
The oversized painting of the silver-haired Sanders was created by local artists. Perched in a front window, it's a centerpiece in an art gallery-turned-unofficial campaign office, where owner Mercedes Hart displays an array of T-shirts, lapel buttons — even pink underwear — bearing the Vermont senator's name.
Out front, Sanders campaign workers have set up a table to register voters and organize volunteers, who will go out to knock on doors and stuff mailboxes with campaign literature.
"I don't ever feel like I believe politicians, but I believe him," says Hart, 35, who lived for years in Mexico. Like many Sanders' devotees, she is a first-time voter, taken up by his concern for workaday Americans in an economy divided by haves and have-nots.
Visitors to her gallery are greeted by a sign above the door featuring a clenched fist and the slogan "Viva Bernie." It's just one snapshot of the tough Democratic presidential campaign playing out in the nation's largest state before the June 7 primary, even as Clinton appears to have a near-lock on the nomination.
By some estimates, Hispanics could make up as many as 2 in 10 voters in California. The contest comes on the same day as those in New Jersey and several other states, in what amounts to the finale of the 2016 primary season.
A come-from-behind win for Sanders in California — a Clinton stronghold and home to 1 in 8 people in the United States — would end the former first lady's campaign with a thud, allowing Sanders to refresh his argument that he's the party's best chance to defeat Republican Donald Trump in November. It would still, though, almost certainly leave him short of the delegates needed to catch up to her. The New Jersey results alone may put her over the top June 7.
The California contest has taken on new urgency after Clinton's shaky performance this month. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs contends that "millions of Americans have growing doubts about the Clinton campaign," citing Sanders' recent victories in Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon.
You could say that age lines have defined the fight for the Latino vote.
Clinton ran up a commanding 2-to-1 edge with Hispanics when she carried California over Barack Obama in the state's 2008 presidential primary. But an independent Field Poll last month revealed a much closer contest and a familiar divide in the electorate: Clinton had a 7-point edge with Hispanics overall, while Sanders was the choice by a nearly 3-to-1 margin for Latinos under age 40.
Meanwhile, voter registration among young Hispanics, those age 18 to 29, has been climbing, and they lean to Sanders.
Sanders "has a real potential to win Latinos" in California, predicted Sanders campaign pollster Ben Tulchin. "He needs an influx of young Latinos and he's getting it, it's happening."
Who ultimately turns out on election day will be critical to the outcome, said Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
Also, younger voters are notoriously fickle, especially among Hispanics.
"The most likely Latino voter is still an older voter in California," Regalado said. "And those voters, almost to a person, will stay with Clinton."
Clinton can count endorsements from virtually all of the state's prominent Hispanic politicians, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra, who heads the House Democratic Caucus. This past week, she added Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of United Farm Workers, to her list of Hispanic advisers.
Longtime labor leader Eliseo Medina, another newly enlisted Clinton adviser, told reporters that the campaign was working to boost Hispanic turnout.
"We need to do better, especially among our young people," Medina said.
Both campaigns have been drilling into voter data to find potential supporters in Hispanic neighborhoods, and lacing their speeches with touchstone issues for Hispanics, including education, immigration and wages.
One example of the fierce competition: Clinton held a rally at a nearby college on Cinco de Mayo, the annual celebration of all things Mexican, where Sanders supporters organized a noisy protest.
At a community college near downtown Los Angeles that enrolls a large number of Hispanics, Sanders volunteers last week were asking students, "Are you registered to vote?" and handing out postcards with a depiction of Sanders, dressed as Uncle Sam.
Among Latino voters, the question is whether Sanders can keep closing the once-wide gap with Clinton, says Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo.
"It's the younger crowd and the new voters that have been really helping Sanders," he said. "The question then becomes, has that momentum continued?"