Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/10/national/10DEMS.html?ex=1058859107&ei=1&en=d45c7c2c6f3765f4

Democrats Design Agenda in Bid to Hold Hispanic Support
New York Times
July 10, 2003

WASHINGTON, July 9 - Moving to protect their political advantage with Hispanic voters against aggressive Republican encroachment, Congressional Democrats are preparing to showcase a policy agenda aimed directly at this increasingly sought-after bloc.

Developed with Hispanic lawmakers and to be made public on Thursday, the platform promises Democratic backing for a variety of initiatives on civil rights, the economy, education, health care and immigration. Party leaders say they hope it helps solidify support among what is now the nation's largest minority. They plan to contrast the party's stand with what they describe as a failure by the Bush administration to follow through on commitments to Hispanics.

"Democrats have a different vision for America's future, one that reflects time-tested American values and the voices of the hard-working majority of Hispanic-Americans, not just the elite few," a draft of the policy agenda stated.

The Democratic push comes as Republicans, led by President Bush, are seeking to cut into Democratic strength among Hispanics. Just today, the White House and top Hispanic groups announced a partnership to improve educational opportunities. Senate Republicans have also sought to use a
fight over a Hispanic judicial nominee to undermine Democrats.

"This is a universe of voters that the Republican Party has long recognized as extremely important," Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said, "and we as a party have been aggressively reaching out to Hispanic voters."

But Democrats said Republicans could be thwarted by high unemployment among Hispanics as well as the disappointment reflected in some polls that the Bush administration had not met Hispanic expectations for better ties with Latin America and eased immigration.

Officials who worked on the Democrats' agenda acknowledged that it did not represent a significant number of new proposals. Its importance lies, they said, in its thematic approach, tying together ideas, for example, on small business aid, work force language training, government-provided health coverage and providing money that has not been forthcoming for promised education programs.

"What is important here is pulling programs together in a comprehensive fashion and showing the Hispanic community we are with them on the issues they care most about," a senior Democratic aide involved in developing the agenda said. A group of Democratic senators were briefed today on recent poll findings that show both opportunities and risks for Democrats when it comes to Hispanic voters.

"Democrats can no longer consider the Hispanic electorate as a base vote," Maria T. Cardona, director of the Hispanic Project at the New Democrat Network, said.

The network helped the party create the agenda, and it financed the poll of 800 Hispanic voters conducted May 27 through June 3, with almost half the interviews conducted in Spanish.

"They are increasingly looking at the Republican Party as an option," Ms. Cardona said.

The survey findings and other data assembled by the New Democrat Network reflect that. In a hypothetical 2002 presidential matchup performed by the group, President Bush - who won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 - was at 44 percent among Hispanic voters. The president's brother
Jeb, the governor of Florida, whose wife is a Mexican native, won the Hispanic vote outright in the governor's race last year, even among Hispanics outside South Florida's generally conservative Cuban-Americans.

But the recent poll found that the president's support among Hispanics was slipping, with his approval rating declining and his showing in another presidential matchup dropping to 34 percent while support for a Democrat was at 48 percent. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said they
felt that the president had not kept a vow to make Latin America a foreign policy priority.

The poll also found that the Senate fight over a judicial nominee, Miguel Estrada, was not resonating with Hispanics although a future fight over a Supreme Court vacancy could be a different story.

"We need to see this as a huge opportunity to really take advantage to start reaching out early and often and not treating Hispanic voters as an afterthought as has happened in the past," Ms. Cardona said of the survey results.

Republican officials said they saw the agenda as politically motivated by anxious Democrats.

"They see eroding support among the Latino community, and this is their wake-up call," Sharon Castillo, who oversees Hispanic outreach at the Republican National Committee, said. "Is it going to help? No. For too long, they have taken the Hispanic community for granted."

Ms. Castillo attributed her party's gains to the president's personal involvement with Hispanic issues and disputed the notion that he had not followed through on his promises about Latin America. She pointed to a free trade agreement with Chile and continuing talks about immigration changes.

But the agenda, which will be announced by Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, along with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, states otherwise.

"Beyond photo ops and political rhetoric," it says, "Republicans have done little or nothing to advance Hispanic priorities."