ORLANDO (AP) _ Like eager but awkward suitors, Barack Obama and John McCain are working hard and sometimes fumbling in their efforts to court Hispanic voters who could swing November’s presidential election.
For the African-American Obama and white Anglo McCain, the problem is less one of language than of trying to understand a group whose own diversity can make it a mystery to others. It’s not a simple matter of saying, “Take me to your leaders.”
But that, in essence, is the ground game the presidential candidates and their campaigns have been playing in pitching to voters who could form decisive constituencies in critical battleground states.
“They just come to me and say, ‘Who are the bosses of the Latin community?”’ said Patrick Manteiga, who runs a family-owned newspaper for Hispanics in Tampa’s historic Cuban neighborhood of Ybor City. “That’s like coming and asking, ‘Who are the bosses of white America, of the soccer moms?”’
Both candidates are pressing their case in three speeches in as many weeks to Hispanic umbrella groups and working in other ways to make their outreach more sophisticated. Republicans have opened an office in Orlando, where most of the state’s Puerto Ricans live, and Obama opens one this week in Ybor City.
They’ve both got their work cut out for them in appealing to a large and growing segment of the population that has leaned Democratic but has not always been motivated to vote. A recent AP-Yahoo News poll found Obama leading McCain 47 percent to 22 percent among Hispanic voters, with 26 percent undecided.
McCain is respected by many Hispanics for refusing to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment over the years. Yet he is viewed in some Latin quarters as a sequel to the unpopular President George W. Bush, a problem he has with voters at large, too.
Obama’s vitality and soaring oratory appeal to Hispanics just as they do to others. Whoops of approval were heard throughout his speech this week to the League of United Latin American Citizens’ convention.
Yet Obama emerged from Democratic primaries a distant second to rival Hillary Rodham Clinton among most Hispanic groups. Like voters at large, Latino voters question the one-term senator’s experience. And there are tensions between blacks and Hispanics.
Hispanic voters are hardly monolithic. Some in the West have roots going back more than two centuries, while others were sworn in as citizens last week. Some consider themselves white and some black, and many represent every shade in between.
During the last presidential election, Hispanics in key swing states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida represented anywhere from 8 percent to more than 30 percent of voters, according to exit polls, and their numbers are only expected to grow this year.
Clara Apodaca, 73, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is among the Clinton supporters who quickly made the shift to Obama. The longtime Democrat was hoping to see a woman in the Oval Office, but she now believes Obama would be the best candidate to handle the economy, the war and the country’s reputation.
“We’re so badly thought of throughout the world,” she said. “We need to shore up our relationships.”
Yet 64-year-old Denver resident Paul Sandoval, who was also a Clinton supporter, has yet to make up his mind.
“Obama has not sold me that he’s the best candidate, regardless if he’s a Democrat,” the Mexican restaurant owner said as he served up eggs for the morning crowd. “I’m going to wait. I’m going to see how they perform on that stage, answering those hard questions.”
And then there is Fernando Romero, a former casino executive and longtime political organizer in Las Vegas. Romero advised Democratic candidate Bill Richardson, but he calls Obama’s relationship with Hispanics shallow. For now, he’s backing McCain.
“Unfortunately (Obama) is the one that we know nothing about and has made little effort to communicate with us,” Romero said. “There are so many good qualities that Senator McCain has _ and proven qualities.”
The McCain campaign is counting on such voters, hoping they will judge him as an individual and not a fixture of the Republican Party.
But the Republicans are seeing their own defections among Hispanic voters, especially in Florida, where for the first time more are registered as Democrats than Republicans.
McCain remains popular among Cuban-Americans in Miami, who tend to vote Republican and admire his military record and his support for U.S. policy toward Cuba. The campaign unveiled its Florida Hispanic steering committee last week with names of roughly 100 active Hispanic supporters from throughout the state. But a crowd of nearly 1,000 people, many of them Cuban-Americans, turned out to hear Obama speak at a private luncheon in May. An Obama campaign sticker briefly peaked out from the wall outside Little Havana’s famed Versailles restaurant last month, a traditional gathering point for Republican hard-liners.
Jesus Mendoza, 51, owner of the Tijerazo barber shop in Tampa, explained his change of heart as he wielded his scissors.
“I’m a true Republican,” said the Puerto Rican native. “I believe people should work hard and get less help. But the Republicans have been in power for eight years, and I don’t think things are better. Obama, he’s a young candidate, but he’s intelligent. Even though I’m a Republican, I’m not blind.”
In Orlando, Angie Thillet, 38, who voted twice for Bush, is leaning toward Obama because he proposes to get the country close to universal health care.
Thillet went without insurance coverage for years, despite white-collar jobs. She has insurance now through her employment at a funeral home, yet she was afraid to go to the doctor after she hit her head in the bathtub because her deductible is more than $1,200.
She doesn’t like the hype surrounding Obama, especially comparisons to John F. Kennedy. Still, she says, “I won’t be voting for McCain.”
If talk radio is any measure, Obama is making inroads. Magda Yvette Torres, a two-time Bush supporter and host of a Spanish-language program in central Florida, fielded calls heavily in favor of the Democrat on one recent show.
“Most of my listeners supported Hillary Clinton, and a few months ago, you would have heard a lot of these same people calling in to criticize Obama, more than a few talking about his race,” Torres said.
TEXAS IN FLUX
Although Texas Hispanics have tended to vote Democratic, in the 2004 presidential election, Bush, the state’s former governor, split their vote with Democrat John Kerry. Now their support may be up for grabs again _ not enough perhaps to swing the state but enough to force McCain to spend more resources there.
Obama’s personal appeal won over San Antonio office manager Naomi Mathews, 35. The Mexican-American considers herself a Republican but is leaning toward Obama. She was impressed that he held a town hall across the street from the coffee shop where she works.
“Maybe it’s the whole change thing,” said Mathews. “He made an impression on us. Maybe we can trust this person.”
Mathews was one of many Hispanic voters, among dozens interviewed by The Associated Press, who said they wanted more of a direct pitch from the candidates.
Angelette Aviles, 32, an active supporter of McCain, believes he will help the economy and be tough in the international arena. But she was frustrated by a recent South Florida radio ad highlighting a former Cuban political prisoner’s support for McCain.
“It’s like, OK, I think the hardcore voters in Miami are going to vote for the Republicans no matter what,” she said. “The younger generation, they’re more concerned about bread and butter issues. You need to reach out to us.”
Manteiga, a Democrat, said Hispanics want more than Obama’s stadium speeches or McCain’s town-hall meetings.
“No one is meeting with the 40 Latin ministries, as they would in the black community,” he said. “Latins want a hug. They want a touch. If 300 or 400 people shake the candidate’s hand, that translates exponentially into votes when they talk to their family and friends.”
MATTERS OF RACE
Manteiga said a personal connection is most important for Obama because he must convince Hispanics who are uncomfortable voting for a black candidate.
Many Hispanics interviewed by the AP acknowledged tensions on that front, because of competition over jobs and services or because of prejudice. Yet many also said these issues would not be the deciding factor for them, especially in a year when the economy and the war in Iraq loom large.
“To me, being Hispanic, the government caters to blacks,” said Eddie Martinez, 51, of Las Vegas. “Anything the government is giving away goes to blacks first.”
Even so, Martinez plans to vote for Obama because he believes the Illinois senator would be the best at bringing jobs to the area.
Manny Genao, a Dominican native, has run the popular Cafe Madrid in east Orlando for years and proudly displays portraits of local Republican leaders across his walls.
Genao said people in his neighborhood complained about an uptick in crime with the influx of “the diverse people” who poured in from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
In the next breath, he said the Bush administration was too close to the oil companies and that he views McCain as more of the same. Then he compared Obama’s speeches to those of Martin Luther King Jr.
“I’m still undecided,” he said.
Associated Press writers Felicia Fonseca in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Kathleen Hennessey in Las Vegas, Sarah Karush in Washington, Ivan Moreno in Denver and Elizabeth White in San Antonio contributed to this report.
Pictured above are John McCain, left, and Barack Obama, right.