SAN ANTONIO — Like no Republican before him, George W. Bush drew Hispanics to the GOP.
In the 2004 election, at least 40% of the voters in the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group backed Bush, double the share of Hispanics who had supported Republican Bob Dole eight years earlier. But the inroads Bush made are vanishing.
The chief beneficiary for 2008 so far is Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.
A new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll indicates that Hispanics, by nearly 3 to 1, say they're Democrats or lean that way. Of those, 59% support the New York senator over her presidential rivals — her strongest showing among any major demographic group and a huge potential asset for early contests in Nevada, Florida, California and other states with large Hispanic populations.
One big factor behind the flight from the GOP: a heated debate over immigration in which congressional Republicans' remarks on illegal immigrants have offended many Hispanic voters. The fallout from that battle, shifting Latino loyalties and a changing political calendar have scrambled political calculations made about Hispanics after the last presidential election — and raised the stakes for their role in choosing the Democratic nominee for the next one.
"At one time, I think Hispanics were viewed by the people who were running campaigns as a little bit of a distraction, a little bit of a nuisance," says Jose Villarreal, a San Antonio lawyer and Clinton supporter who was a top adviser to Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. "Now the community is like an IPO. Everybody wants to invest in it."
Even though the presidential candidates are frantically raising money in the final days before the end of the month — the second-quarter fundraising totals are seen as benchmarks for their standing — all the Democratic contenders accepted invitations to address NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. They will speak to the group's convention in Orlando on Saturday.
In a sign of how GOP priorities have changed since President Bush's careful cultivation of Hispanic voters, all the Republican candidates declined invitations to join a similar forum there Friday, citing scheduling conflicts.
"On the one hand, they say that they're not willing to concede the Hispanic vote," says Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO, whose convention opens today. "On the other hand, it's actions that speak louder than words."
During his races for Texas governor and president, Bush made a point of campaigning among Hispanics, praising their values and sometimes speaking Spanish. He's pushing an immigration overhaul now before the Senate that would provide a path to legal status for illegal immigrants now in the USA.
His efforts paid off: After Dole carried just 21% of the Hispanic vote in the 1996 presidential election, Bush built the GOP share to 35% in 2000 and at least 40% in 2004.
By 2005, nearly one-third of Hispanics called themselves Republicans or leaned that way.
"It was the family values thing" that persuaded some of her Hispanic friends and co-workers to vote Republican in 2004, says Millie Linares, 47. The middle school librarian was waiting in San Antonio's muggy heat Sunday for a rally featuring Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama.