If you believe the propaganda emanating from some Republican strategists' pipe dreams, the Hispanic vote is up for grabs in the 2004 presidential derby.
We are told that Hispanics widely appreciate George W. Bush as a warm, vigorous leader, a macho with the culture of the cattle ranch in his blood who knows enough Spanish to order his own meals in Mexican restaurants while on the campaign trail and who also possesses a passel of Latino relatives by marriage.
These circumstances, Karl Rove and his ilk are trying to convince us, are going to be sufficiently powerful inducements to overcome the well-deserved antipathy with which most Hispanos receive Republicanism and its head-scratching insistence that we should all abase ourselves in order to provide a healthy boost-up to the richest and most powerful people in the country.
Now even Rove himself doesn't pretend that Bush will win a majority of Latino hearts in November. But what the GOP is counting on is to cut into the Democratic majority among Hispanics deeply enough that it can't make up for the Bush plurality anticipated among Anglos, at least male Anglos.
As much as anything, this Republican strategy is based on their perception that John Kerry, the putative Democratic nominee, is simply going to be unable to stir the passions of Mexican, Puerto Rican and other Latino voters. (The Cubans are not in play; their hearts belong to Bush and nothing Kerry does will ever be able to change that.)
In this script, the Massachusetts senator, angular and upright in his New England self control, will turn out to be far too rigid, far too measured, and far too cerebral to be marketable in Latino households. "Bor-ing," you can almost hear the audience muttering chorally in response to Kerry's television persona.
But at last week's Phoenix Convention of the National Council of La Raza, only two of the dozens of speakers sparked genuine excitement among the estimated 10,000 attendees: John McCain and John Kerry. And of these two, it was Kerry who clearly generated the greatest enthusiasm. His speech left many in attendance wondering "Who was that guy?" He came across very differently from the charisma-challenged candidate most had expected.
Funny, attentive, passionate, Kerry in person was everything that his television character seems not to be. The reception he received, the prolonged applause and the exuberant cheering, was definitely genuine, not something orchestrated by paid organizers and carried out by claques.
When he outlined his campaign issues, particularly his plans to raise the federal minimum wage, to provide health care for all, to sign immigration reforms like the DREAM act and to expand veterans' services and benefits, Kerry drew loud cheers. Yet it was when he explained how he intended to pay for all this that he got his biggest applause. "I will roll back George Bush's enormous tax cut which helped only that fraction of Americans who earn over $200,000 a year." At those words, the crowd leapt to its feet and raised the roof.
It isn't rocket science: Hispanic Americans are interested in precisely the same issues as other Americans ... plus actually a very few other issues that don't usually show up on the radar screens of other ethnic groups, issues like immigration reform, bilingual education supports, farm labor policies and health and educational access for families of undocumented workers.
The upshot is that the National Council of La Raza delegates, probably a better educated, higher income earning group than is the Hispanic population generally, responded with great energy to this Democrat's message. It didn't hurt that he was able to announce at the start of his talk that Jose Villarreal, a dynamic young Chicano attorney originally from Houston but now a partner in one of the most prestigious inside-the-beltway law firms, had agreed to serve as vice chairman of his campaign.
The message Kerry is pitching is one that will find a warm reception throughout the Hispanic community. The role of Hispanic voters, especially when the polls are showing the neck and neck likelihood of this race, will be incredibly important. We can make the difference in the southwestern tier of states like New Mexico, of course, but also in places like North Carolina, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and even Wisconsin—all of which have growing, increasingly vocal minority blocs of Hispanics.
The challenge for the Democrats is to find a way to translate the warm abrazo Kerry gave (and received) from the excited crowd in Phoenix into the man who is seen on television, in commercials and in the national debates.
If the John Kerry who reached out to la plebe so effectively last week can come through the nation's television sets, there is no chance George W. Bush, handicapped by having to lug around his own track record, will increase his attraction for Latino voters. And if he doesn't attract them, it is hard to see how he can beat Kerry.