Bush's Latino bid

The Republican candidate reaches out to Hispanics and seeks to shed his party's image of intolerance.

By Anthony York
Published April 10, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

While Vice President Al Gore has spent much of his week clarifying his stance on what should happen to Elian Gonzalez, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and national Republicans have spent the week on an unprecedented campaign of outreach to Latinos.

Wednesday, the Republican National Committee launched a new set of ads aimed at Latino voters in California. Friday, Bush was in California speaking to the National Hispanic Women's Conference in Los Angeles.

"Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande," Bush told the women. "If you're a mother or dad, and you're worried about feeding your children, and you can't find work close to home, and you hear of opportunities somewhere else, and you're worth your salt, you're coming."

Earlier this week Bush even seemed to take a swipe at former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who made enemies in the Latino community by backing Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure aimed at kicking children of illegal immigrants out of schools. (The measure passed overwhelmingly, but was later thrown out by the courts.)

Bush, who received 40 percent of the Latino vote in Texas, has tried to avoid the issue of Wilson, but in Los Angeles Friday, he was more open about criticizing the former governor. Though he never mentioned Wilson by name, Bush drew sustained applause when he said he "will not use our children, the children of immigrants, as a political issue in America."

Naturally the Gore campaign dismisses the GOP effort to court Latinos. "The Republicans are not offering anything beyond slogans and rhetoric," said Gore spokesman Alejandro Cabrera. "They want credit for what common sense and decency says they should be doing anyway. Just saying they're not going to scapegoat Hispanic kids should not win [Bush] votes."

The Gore campaign sent out a release Friday as Bush prepared to speak to the women's conference, blasting Bush's record on health care for Latinos in Texas. It pointed out that Hispanics account for 48 percent of the state's 4.8 million people without health insurance. "Bush says he's a different kind of Republican, but his rhetoric doesn't match his record," the release said, calling Bush's Latino push "more rhetoric than reality."

Cabrera said the recent GOP about-face on Latino outreach is simply numbers-driven politics. "For them, this Hispanic community is a political calculus. For Gore, it's a community that should be embraced and cherished and lifted up."

Political calculation is driving both parties' pursuit of Hispanics. While Latinos are a fast-growing voter segment, the election will not turn on Hispanic voters, who still make up just 5 percent of the electorate. But by reaching out to Latinos -- and Latinas in particular -- Democrats can solidify their image as the party of diversity, while Republicans can rehabilitate and soften their image in the post-Newt Gingrich era.

"There is a reflective value in reaching out to those voters," said California Republican strategist Dan Schnur, former national communications director for John McCain's presidential campaign. "Whether it's young voters, minority voters or women voters, you realize the value of that effort among the rest of the electorate."

Schnur said his party has lost the war of perception during the last two election cycles, conveying an image of intolerance and hostility that it is trying to recover from. "Voters will forgive a policy difference if they believe you're tolerant," he said.

"This helps us with everybody, no question," said one California Republican. "The elections of 1996 and '98 forced us to really analyze who we are, and the truth is, we had two terribly inept campaigns at the top of the ticket."

By most accounts, RNC chairman Jim Nicholson has been almost as important as Bush in redefining the GOP's message.

"Years from now we're going to look back and know it was Nicholson that changed the face of this party," said RNC spokeswoman Leslie Sanchez. "He changed the dynamic and really made it the two-party system within the Latino community. It will be Jim Nicholson's legacy that he is changing the face of the Republican Party."

It was Nicholson who commissioned pollster Lance Tarrance to do a comprehensive demographic and political study of American Latinos. Tarrance, one of the chief architects of the GOP's Southern strategy of the 1960s and '70s -- an effort to convert conservative Dixiecrats into Republicans -- has urged Republicans to embrace the browning of the Republican Party, and pursue "a Hispanic strategy for the next three decades."

RNC sources say that the committee is dedicating $7 million to $10 million to its Latino outreach effort. It's "money that has never been spent to capture the minority vote," Sanchez said. "And it's not just in dollars, it's in manpower. Republicans are serious about capturing this vote."

Certainly, the number of Latinos voting is what has sparked the GOP's new focus on Latino outreach. "There's a recognition that it's absolutely essential," said California GOP political consultant Kevin Spillane. "There's going to be a long-term commitment to Latino outreach because there's no other choice."

Spillane said that Bush is one of the only Republican politicians he has seen who is genuinely passionate about issues of race. "There's only one other guy who has talked about racial issues and inclusion within the party, and that's Jack Kemp," Spillane said. "He's often been seen as more of an oddity within the party than anything else, but I think racial inclusiveness and diversifying the party is going to be a huge thing for the party in the future."

Spillane compared Bush to President Clinton in his ability to change the focus of his political party. "Clinton single-handedly redefined the Democratic Party's image as more moderate," he said. "If Bush is elected president, I think you'd see the RNC under Karl Rove and the Bush White House make a major effort to elect Latino Republicans."

The consultant conceded that a greater cultural shift must take place among Republicans in California and elsewhere. In 1998, the state Republican Party sent out a mailer with four Latino legislators under the heading "Their agenda is ruining your future." These type of thinly veiled racist appeals long marked California GOP mailers. When San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was Assembly speaker, his visage often found its way into Republican mailings.

But Spillane expressed optimism that a fundamental attitude shift was beginning among the state GOP, spurned by the soul-searching after the last two overwhelming election defeats.

"Bottoming out sure helps," Spillane said. He cited a recent meeting with all of the state's GOP consultants, Bush California Chairman Gerry Parsky and members of the state Republican Party. "We had a very frank discussion, and I think there's been a lot of positive movement, but I think there's a ways to go," he said. "But it's pretty remarkable now. You go into a meeting with people who are supposed to be very conservative, white male donors or political activists, and everyone's talking about women and Latinos."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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