Hispanics turn to Democrats in '08

Obama, meanwhile, is playing catch-up. Nearly half of Hispanics nationwide say they've never heard of the Illinois senator. Among Hispanic Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 13% support him. That's his weakest standing among any major demographic group, according to an analysis of combined USA TODAY/Gallup Polls taken this year.

A local Latino rhythm-and-dance troupe performed at his midday rally here — brown plastic cacti and colorful piñatas decorated both sides of the stage — before Obama was introduced to the crowd by Juan Garcia, a Texas state representative and Harvard Law School classmate, and San Antonio Spurs forward Bruce Bowen.

In his speech, Obama noted that his work as a young community organizer in Chicago included Latino as well as black and white neighborhoods. He listed Cesar Chavez, the Chicano farm workers' organizer, among his civil rights heroes and pledged as president to build better relations with Latin America.

"We're not going to fan the flames on immigration," he shouted as the crowd cheered. Local campaign volunteers were sporting bright blue T-shirts declaring "AlamObama," a word play on the Alamo landmark a mile away.

"We're going to solve the problem and we're going to work together," he said. Some Republicans reach out

A month after the 2004 election, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were so concerned about erosion among once-solidly Democratic Hispanics to Bush that they sent a letter to the Democratic National Committee warning that Republicans were "clearly winning the battle for Hispanic voters."

That was then.

Now, the same angst over the Iraq war and the economy that has cost Bush support among independent voters generally also has dismayed Latinos. Bush's job-approval rating among Hispanics is 29%, lower than his 32% rating overall. Some Hispanics have been alarmed and offended by the harsh rhetoric of some congressional Republicans in the immigration debate and the opposition by most of the GOP presidential field to designing a path to legal status for illegal immigrants now in the USA.

"People think just because I'm Hispanic, I'll open the gates and let them all come over," says Martha Gutierrez, 52, a middle school history teacher from Corpus Christi. That's not true, she says, but "a lot of us look at this as a more practical matter." The idea of forcing an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to leave is "crazy," she says.

"This country is based on immigrants, and now they want to send them all back?" says Mario Morales, 29, an engineer in San Antonio. "It'll hurt the economy, and it is a little racist."

Some GOP candidates are trying to reach out to Hispanic voters.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, an architect of the Senate's immigration bill, in the last GOP debate emotionally extolled the bravery and sacrifices of Hispanic veterans in the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney began airing Spanish-language TV ads in South Florida in March and has posted a video on his campaign website of son Craig touting "mi papa" in Spanish.

With the exception of McCain, however, the major Republican presidential contenders have been more concerned about appealing to tough-on-immigration conservatives who are likely to be important in the GOP primaries than to Hispanics who are swing voters.

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