Democratic Candidates Court Latino Voters

As part of an effort to woo the nation's rapidly growing Hispanic population, all but one of the Democratic presidential candidates converge at a first-of-its-kind debate at the University of Miami Sunday.

The 90-minute forum will be televised nationally in prime time on Univision, the most watched Spanish-language television network in the United States.

"For the first time in U.S. history, a debate will focus exclusively on Latino issues," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democratic Network, a political advocacy organization.

However, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Hispanic presidential candidate, has been asked to refrain from showing off his fluent Spanish-speaking skills. Questions will be asked and answered in English, and then translated into Spanish for the network's TV, radio and online platforms.

All of the Democratic presidential candidates agreed to the debate. However Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., pulled out on Friday.

His office said he will be too busy after just getting back from a trip to Iraq, appearing on a Sunday morning talk show on Sunday, and preparing for Tuesday's Senate hearing assessing Iraq's stability.

A similar Hispanic debate for the Republican presidential candidates scheduled for Sept. 16 was canceled because Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the only candidate who said he could attend. McCain supported the failed immigration reform effort in the Senate.

Hispanic Voters a 'Battleground Community'

Latinos are the nation's largest minority group, representing nearly half the total population growth between 2002 and 2006, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Hispanics will represent about 10 percent of the U.S. electorate in 2008.

In a close contest, analysts say Hispanics could make the difference in who finishes first -- providing they come out to vote.

Political strategists say the debate is a key part of a tactical strategy to win the support of Latino voters in key battleground states such as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Florida, where the Hispanic population is rising.

"This is a battleground community of huge consequence that could decide the next president of the United States," Rosenberg said.

Democratic Candidates Court Latino Voters

With immigration reform emerging as a top issue in 2008, Democratic candidates are vying to attract Latinos like never before.

The Democratic National Committee has scheduled the party's convention in Denver; Colorado is a state with a growing Hispanic population.

Many of the candidates have Spanish-language sections on their campaign Web sites, including Richardson, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who also speaks Spanish fluently.

Richardson Struggles for Name Recognition

Despite having a mother who is Mexican, being fully bilingual and being raised in Mexico City, most Hispanics don't know who Richardson is.

Six in 10 Latinos say they have never heard of the governor, according to a June USA Today/Gallup study.

"With a name like Bill Richardson, it's a bit of a challenge," said Tom Reynolds, Richardson's national press secretary.

"His name is not a traditional Hispanic name so the Latino community doesn't readily make that connection." he said.

The Richardson campaign recently launched "Mi Familia" -- a grassroots fundraising and support-building effort directed toward Hispanics in Arizona, Nevada and California.

"Latinos won't vote for us just because the governor is Latino," Reynolds said. "He is equally concerned as they are about health care, Iraq, education and energy, so our message is just as important as our shared heritage."

Clinton Has Early Poll Lead Among Democratic Latino Voters

Clinton may have an edge with the Hispanic community. Her huband garnered 72 percent of support of Latino voters in 1996, according to exit polls.

She has also highlighted her close relationships with prominent Hispanics, including her campaign manager, Patricia Solis Doyle, the first Latino woman to lead a presidential campaign, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Dolores Huerta, a longtime activist who helped Cesar Chavez organize farmworkers.

She has hired a Hispanic pollster and a director of Hispanic outreach, and has some high-profile endorsements, including Fabian Núñez, speaker of the California House, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"The relationship that she started with the Latino community didn't start yesterday," said Fabiola Rodríguez-Ciampoli, director of Hispanic outreach for the Clinton campaign.

A June USA Today/Gallup Poll found that Hispanics, by nearly 3 to 1, say they're Democrats or lean that way. Of those, 59 percent said they support Clinton, while only 13 percent said they support Obama. That support could translate into a huge political asset in early contests in Florida, California, Nevada and other states with large Hispanic populations.

"People know she has a strong record of supporting issues important to our community like heath care, education, Iraq and immigration," Rodríguez-Ciampoli said.

Clinton and Obama spoke before roughly 2,000 Hispanic educators, activists, and community and business leaders at the annual conference of the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights organization, the National Council of La Raza, in Miami Beach in July.

Obama Emphasizes Joined Struggles of Blacks and Hispanics

At the forum, Clinton touted her personal connection to the community while Obama emphasized the intertwined struggles of black and Hispanic Americans. Both support a path to legalization for illegal immigrants, improved border security and universal health care and preschool.

For his part, Obama has run Spanish-language radio ads in Nevada. He has an independent Web site devoted to his campaign -- -- complete with a Latin-flavored theme song.

And he has a full-time staffer in charge of Hispanic outreach efforts.

Obama voted "yes" on legislation that includes a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and is in favor of increased security, but like Clinton, has advocated finding a legal path to allow 12 million illegal immigrants to earn citizenship and remain in the United States.

Edwards, another leading Democratic president candidate, has barely registered on Latinos' charts.

Republicans Made Inroads With Latino Voters in 2000 and 2004

The vast majority of Latino voters usually vote Democratic. However the GOP made significant gains in attracting Hispanic voters in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

President Bush drew Latino voters to the GOP like no Republican before him. His campaign outspent former Vice President Al Gore in 2000 the crucial state of Florida, where a majority of Cuban-Americans reside.

In 2004, Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote, doubling the number of Hispanics who had supported Republican Bob Dole eight years earlier.

But the inroads Bush made are vanishing and may be gone by the time November 2008 rolls around.

GOP Immigration Strategy a 'Political Disaster'

The Latino community was mobilized to the streets to protest a House bill calling for the criminalization of all undocumented workers -- a bill passed in the GOP-led House but not passed in the Senate.

Proposals for more walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico border and the failure of Congress to pass immigrant legislation may mobilize Hispanics further.

"The GOP's anti-immigration strategy has been a political disaster for the Republicans," Rosenberg said, pointing to ads the Republican Party ran in 25 states before the 2006 midterm elections that equated Mexican immigrants with Islamic terrorists.

While turnout increased among Latino in 2006, support for Republican candidates decreased to 30 percent.

Joe Garcia, director of the Hispanic Strategy Center at the National Democratic Network, predicts Hispanics will turn away from Republicans at the polls in 2008 because of the anti-immigration policies of Republican presidential candidates Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Ariz.

"The field of candidate have been pulled to the right by these xenophobes and racists," he said. "There is not an Hispanic in America who doesn't know who Tom Tancredo is and that's going to have an effect."