Dean tries to widen base, woo Hispanic voters

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(Host) Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has surged past his rivals with his aggressive use of the Internet. But the supporters who’ve shown up so far for his rallies and campaign events are overwhelmingly white. Dean has yet to break through and connect with minority voters who are a core Democratic constituency. The former Vermont governor was in New Mexico last week to woo Hispanics.

VPR’s John Dillon reports on the challenges facing Dean as he broadens his campaign to reach Spanish-speaking voters:

(Dillon) Inside a coffeehouse in the heart of Santa Fe’s historic downtown, the standing room only crowd gathers an hour early to hear the hottest candidate in the Democratic primary race.

Howard Dean will soon make an appearance at this monthly meeting of Internet-energized supporters. Everyone here has connected to the campaign through a Web site called The web service, coupled with Dean’s online outreach, has brought tens of thousands of people to his grassroots campaign. As he surveys the crowd, Robert Adams, the vice chairman of the Santa Fe County Democrats, finds just one problem.

(Adams) “The challenge I’ve seen is the crowds that are coming and the Meetups and everything are mostly white liberals. The challenge is going to be when we’re trying to get the vote out to use those means that we know how to use to reach Hispanic voters and get them to vote.”

(Dillon) Dean and the Democrats know that the Hispanic vote is crucial if they’re to win in 2004. Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the country. One Republican strategist says Hispanics will be the most sought after voting bloc of the decade.

In the 2000 election, Republican George Bush captured about 35% of the Hispanic vote, a 5% gain from the previous presidential election cycle. Democrats want to reverse that trend. They’ve positioned the Arizona primary and the New Mexico caucus for February 3 to give those states – with their large Hispanic population – an early voice in the candidate selection process.

Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe and Texas Congressman Ciro Rodriguez toured the Southwest last week to highlight issues that are key to Hispanic voters. They ended their trip in Albuquerque, where the party held a debate that was simultaneously broadcast in Spanish.

For Rodriguez, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the key message is that President Bush’s policies have hurt Hispanics. Forty percent don’t have health care coverage, he says. He blasted Bush for cutting federal education funds and Head Start programs for low income children.

(Rodriguez) “Not to mention the fact that in economic development, right now we’re 8.2% of the Latino community is unemployed because of the Bush economy. And that is devastating. So just in terms of what the Bush administration is doing is a good reason not to vote for it, because what he has said and what he has done is two different things.”

(Dillon) Dean is from a mostly white state with a minuscule Hispanic population. When New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was asked if Dean can carry New Mexico and beat Bush, the governor quickly highlighted Dean’s hands-off position on gun control. He says the support of the National Rifle Association will help in the rural West.

(Richardson) “I think Howard Dean is a good candidate. I think he can win New Mexico, but I think so can all the other candidates. I think we have a good stable of candidates. You take Governor Dean. He’s strong with the NRA, this is a very strong NRA state.”

(Dillon) To win New Mexico, Dean has to move beyond his base. He’s worked hard to win the endorsement from labor unions, which include many Latino members. And he hopes to get support as well from key Hispanic politicians. But Richardson, the country’s only Hispanic governor, says he won’t make any endorsements in the primary contest.

University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkenson was in Santa Fe last week to hear Dean speak. As she took shelter from a thunderstorm in a covered courtyard, Atkenson said the endorsements will be key. She says many Hispanics pay close attention to leaders in their community.

(Atkenson) “And I think it would have a large effect, it could have a real effect on Hispanic voters, you know, getting that kind of cue from Hispanic leaders.”

(Dillon) Atkenson says it’s hard to pigeonhole the Hispanic voting bloc; it’s not homogenous. But she says the overriding concerns are education, health care, the economy and immigration issues. She says all the Democrats face similar challenges reaching Hispanic voters.

(Atkenson) “I think they’re looking for a candidate who’s willing to talk about issues they would like talked about. So I think if they can focus on that, and mobilize the vote, and that’s a key perspective here. But it’s hard to mobilize this group of voters. They don’t turn out.”

(Dillon) Dean has hired a Hispanic field director to help get out the vote. But Atkenson says Dean hasn’t yet broken through to reach New Mexicans of Spanish heritage. She went to a Dean rally in Santa Fe earlier this summer, and says she saw very few Hispanic faces.

(Atkenson) “It seemed to me I was seeing a lot of white, northeastern liberal transplants, particularly who were say, over the age of 40 – 45.”

(Dillon) One Dean Hispanic supporter says there’s a simple reason why the Vermonter hasn’t yet connected with Latino voters. Rudy Clark says Dean has so far appealed to computer-savvy liberals who’ve done much of their organizing through the Internet.

(Clark) “First of all, most of us, don’t have computers. Remember, who has computers? The most affluent members of society. Who are Hispanics? They wash the dishes. So they don’t understand that logic.”

(Dillon) Clark says Dean will have to speak some Spanish to voters, or at least find supporters who know the language.

(Clark) “For Dean to be successful he needs to have a spokesperson in this state who is Hispanic and speaks Spanish and does commercials for him or with him and stands up together. That’s the dynamic. It’s always been the dynamic in this part of country.”

(Dillon) Most of the Democrats in the Albuquerque debate tried out their Spanish, with varying degrees of success. Dean, who took Spanish lessons while he was still governor, speaks the longest, and sounds like he has the best accent.

(Dean, speaking Spanish) “Every child under 18, 99% eligible, 96% have it. Everyone under 150% of poverty has health insurance. Every senior under 225% of poverty gets prescription help.”

(Dillon) Before the debate, Dean spoke to a mostly white crowd of several hundred people on the University of New Mexico campus. Carlos Trujillo, a 21 year old UNM student, says it’s important that Dean speaks Spanish. But he says what really counts is the candidate’s position on issues.

(Trujillo) “Hispanics are just as concerned with the issues as Anglos are, or as African Americans are, or Native Americans. You know, if he comes and says: health care, education, jobs – is what Hispanics want to hear. And that’s what’s important to all Americans, if you ask me.”

(Dillon) But Trujillo says the biggest challenge for Dean is to get out the vote. He says Hispanics typically decide late in a campaign who they’ll support, so he says the Dean campaign must work hard to organize New Mexico in the months ahead.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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