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Obama races to trim Clintons lead among Latinos as multistate primary day approaches
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Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., responds during a news conference in Los Angeles, Friday, Feb. 1, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s campaign ditched its familiar Motown tunes this week, warming up California crowds with Ricky Martin’s bilingual soccer anthem, ‘‘The Cup of Life.’’
    Obama also hosted a ‘‘Latino Town Hall’’ in Los Angeles, said he should learn Spanish, and dispatched his top surrogate, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, to Hispanic centers in New Mexico.
    The Illinois senator’s scramble for Latino votes is an acknowledgment that his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, enjoys a major head start in wooing a minority group that could prove crucial in Tuesday’s 22-state showdown.
    ‘‘We have been aggressively advertising in the Latino community,’’ Obama told reporters Friday. ‘‘I was at a disadvantage relative to Senator Clinton because she’s universally known.’’
    ‘‘But I think we are going to do much better than people anticipate,’’ he said.
    Obama is trying to close the gap, matching Clinton’s Spanish-language ads and sending Kennedy to places where many older Latinos revere that family’s name and legacy. As for younger Latinos, Obama hopes his proven ability to energize college-age blacks and whites will apply equally to Hispanics in California and other states voting next week.
    But Obama concedes that the Super Tuesday calendar gives him far less time to engage and charm voters than he had in Iowa and South Carolina, where he scored two big victories.
    Many Clinton supporters, meanwhile, feel her years-long outreach to Hispanics, and her husband’s popularity, will serve her well among the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority. They note she won the popular vote in the Jan. 19 Nevada caucus after taking 64 percent of the Hispanic vote to Obama’s 26 percent. If she rolls up similar margins among Hispanics next week, Obama is in for a long night.
    Traditionally, politicians have talked more about courting Latinos than doing it. But in light of demographic and political trends, ‘‘it is not an overstatement to say that Hispanics may hold the key to the presidency in 2008,’’ Simon Rosenberg, head of a left-of-center think tank called NDN, wrote in a recent study of the general and primary elections.
    Latinos make up sizable portions of the Democratic electorate in California, New Mexico and Arizona, and they comprise at least 10 percent of eligible voters in Colorado, New York and New Jersey. All six states vote on Tuesday. Clinton and Obama are campaigning hard there, targeting Latinos for voter turnout, running ads in Spanish and deploying Hispanic officials as surrogates.
    Hispanics surpassed blacks as the nation’s largest minority years ago. But their political clout has not kept pace. They make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population but only about 9 percent of eligible voters, largely because many are non-citizens or under 18.
    And if their comparatively low turnout rates continue, Hispanics will account for less than 7 percent of the nationwide vote in November, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
    But non-Florida Latinos lean strongly Democratic, and their concentration in several Super Tuesday states gives them a significantly larger role in next week’s Democratic primaries and caucuses. That helps Clinton, analysts say.
    The New York senator ‘‘has worked very hard on the Latino vote for a long time,’’ said Roberto Suro, a former head of the Pew Hispanic Center who now teaches communications at the University of Southern California. ‘‘Even Obama’s supporters have admitted he’s been very late in looking at the Latino vote and doing any specific outreach.’’
    Suro and others dismiss the notion, promoted recently by a top Clinton adviser, that Latinos are reluctant to vote for black candidates because of supposed rivalries between blacks and Hispanics in many neighborhoods and workplaces.
    ‘‘That’s not a supportable kind of argument,’’ said Angelo Falcon, president of the nonprofit and nonpartisan National Institute for Latino Policy in New York. Hispanics have voted heavily for black candidates in many state and municipal elections, he said, and Obama did well among Illinois Latinos in his 2004 Senate win.
    Obama’s problems are more prosaic than ethnic, Falcon said. Latinos, like most other voters, are likely to support a familiar name who is backed by respected local officials, he said. In Hispanic communities outside Illinois, that describes Clinton far more than Obama.
    ‘‘She has a longer history’’ with Latinos, Falcon said. She also benefits from ‘‘the identification with her husband,’’ whose presidency marked a time of prosperity for many Latinos, he said.
    ‘‘She is the establishment Democratic Party candidate,’’ Falcon said, and many rank-and-file Hispanics feel comfortable with that. That’s why Clinton is heavily promoting her endorsements from Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Clinton cabinet member and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros.
    Obama has his own endorsers, including Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and Federico Pena, a former Clinton Cabinet member and Denver, Colo., mayor. But he also is trying to match Clinton in courting Latinos directly.
    ‘‘We’ve heard some cynical talk about how black folks and white folks and Latinos can’t come together,’’ Obama said at Thursday’s ‘‘Latino Town Hall’’ in Los Angeles. But he has worked to bridge the ‘‘so-called black-brown divide’’ since his days as a community organizer in Chicago, he said.
    Earlier this week, Kennedy campaigned for him at an Albuquerque Hispanic cultural center, a Santa Fe community college and a popular Spanish-language radio station where the host, El PiolDin, heaped praise on the visitor. Obama fans hope Kennedy’s charisma can trump Clinton’s popularity.
    But some are doubtful. ‘‘I think people are making too much of this Kennedy thing,’’ Falcon said.
    Columbia University political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza, who tracks Hispanic issues, agreed.
    ‘‘It’s awfully late’’ for Obama and his surrogates to try to overcome Clinton’s hard-earned loyalty among Hispanics, he said. ‘‘The key is, he hasn’t been around Latinos a lot.’’
    Noting Kennedy’s visit to Santa Fe, de la Garza said, ‘‘the Latinos there are a longtime, established, centrist group.’’ Those words, he noted, fit Hillary Clinton better than Barack Obama.
    Associated Press Writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report from California.

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