Latino votes will be on debaters' minds in Vegas

Democratic presidential candidates converge Thursday night in this gambling capital as they try to strike it rich with Hispanic voters.

Nevada's growing Hispanic population is one reason the Democratic Party scheduled caucuses for Jan. 19, just after the nominating contests in the less diverse states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

"It's giving the Hispanic vote and the labor vote a voice early in the process," said state Democratic Party Chairwoman Jill Derby.

Derby and others expect immigration and jobs to be topics during tonight's Democratic presidential debate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It's the first debate since an Oct. 30 match in which John Edwards, Barack Obama and other Democratic rivals took aim at Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is leading national polls for the nomination.

The party has been using a Spanish-language website and a soccer team to reach out to Hispanics, who now make up about 24% of the state's population, up from about 20% in 2000. Chrysanthe Georges, a marketing firm owner, attributed the growth to the availability of jobs, particularly the building and staffing of casinos.

Converting that growth into Democratic votes may not be so easy, analysts said. Hispanics made up only 10% of the electorate in 2004 when President Bush narrowly beat John Kerry in Nevada, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

Andres Ramirez, who leads Hispanic outreach for Nevada Democrats, said Hispanics make up only 10% of registered voters, yet were 13% of the electorate in 2006, when the state had a hotly contested gubernatorial race.

There's also the challenge of explaining what is a political caucus, a gathering of people who don't cast ballots. As Ramirez put it, "There is no Spanish word for caucus."

Republicans, meanwhile, continue to stake a claim to the Latino vote even though leading contenders such as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have been outspoken in their opposition to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants. In 2004, Bush won about 40% of Hispanic voters nationally. State GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden said Hispanics are attracted by the party's message of low taxes and economic opportunity.

Nevada Republicans also have caucuses scheduled for Jan. 19, but the party's presidential candidates have spent more time in South Carolina because it is holding a GOP primary that same day. After being criticized for not participating, Giuliani and Romney have now agreed to take part with John McCain and other GOP hopefuls at a debate Dec. 9 sponsored by Spanish-language network Univision.

Ruben Kihuen, a Nevada legislator who has endorsed Clinton, said Republicans may hope for Hispanic votes but "that was before they defeated comprehensive immigration reform" in Congress. Kihuen and Ramirez hope the attention from Nevada's early caucuses will help Democrats register more Hispanic voters. The unions are also assisting.

The largest is the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, which has about 60,000 cooks, waiters, bartenders, housekeepers and other members — about 45% of them Latino, according to political director Pilar Maria Weiss.

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the Latino vote" isn't as united a bloc as political analysts would like it to be."

Herzik noted that many are culturally conservative Catholics who oppose abortion rights and support school prayer. He added that some union members want to crack down on illegal immigration as a threat to their jobs. "The Latino community fractures along a number of lines," he said.

Former Alaska senator Mike Gravel will not be at the debate because he failed to meet the $1 million fundraising threshold set by CNN, the event sponsor.