updated 1/9/2007 6:13:53 AM ET 2007-01-09T11:13:53

Democrats recaptured a big part of the Hispanic vote in this year's elections, support that Latino activists caution won't necessarily be there in the next contest.

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Nearly seven in 10 Hispanic voters supported Democrats in the congressional elections, according to exit polls. But that's not the whole story. Republican candidates in several key states did well among Hispanics, suggesting that Latinos could be important swing voters in the 2008 presidential election.

"Part of the defection had to do with dissatisfaction with the president, not necessarily satisfaction with the Democrats," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, state policy director for the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group. "The Democrats will have to make sure they address the concerns of Latinos to keep that support."

Democrats have long counted on Hispanic voters as a core constituency, so they were concerned after President Bush captured about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. That was the most ever for a GOP presidential candidate.

"I think there was an assumption that Latinos were becoming more Republican," said Lionel Sosa, an adviser on Hispanic outreach for Bush's campaigns. "But the fact is the Latino is becoming more of a swing voter _ no longer voting the Democratic Party line, but not calling themselves Republican, either."

Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the country. But they don't have proportionate political power in part because many are non-citizens, making them ineligible to vote.

In some states, though, Hispanic voters make up a significant part of the electorate, including Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada _ fast-growing places that could be important battlegrounds in 2008. All four states voted for Bush in 2004, but Democrats have had recent success in each state.

"That is where both parties need to focus for the future," Sosa said.

Republicans in Arizona and Nevada received significant support from Hispanic voters in November. Sen. Jon Kyl carried 41 percent of the Arizona Hispanic vote in his re-election victory, according to exit polls. In Nevada, Republican Jim Gibbons won the governor's race with 37 percent of the Hispanic vote.

GOP's chances in 2008?
Analysts say it's unlikely that a majority of U.S. Hispanics would back a Republican for president in 2008. Rather, national GOP candidates can expect to receive somewhere between 30 percent and 45 percent of the Hispanic vote, said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization in Washington. But in a close presidential race, the difference between those percentages could be decisive.

Hispanics "are not swing voters in the way that white middle-class men have been for the past 20 years, like the Reagan Democrats," Suro said.

Suro said it would take a "seismic shift" for a Republican to garner 50 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. However, he added, Republicans would be disappointed to get only 30 percent.

Many Hispanics were angered by the hard line some Republicans took on the illegal immigration debate, and it showed at the polls.

"Latinos are no different than anybody else; they don't want to be used," said Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., outgoing chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The outgoing Republican National Committee Chairman, Ken Mehlman, said there isn't unanimity on the immigration issue within his party. He noted that Bush supported an immigration bill that would have provided an eventual path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants.

Mehlman worked hard to reach out to Hispanic and black voters during his tenure as party chairman. His successor, Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, was born in Cuba and is expected to continue the effort.

Immigration is a big issue among Hispanics in the United States, but it's not the only one of importance. When Latinos were asked in a recent survey to name the most important problem facing the country, more said the war in Iraq and the economy than illegal immigration.

However, when asked about the most important problem facing the Latino community, far more said illegal immigration than any other issue. The survey, called the 2006 National Latino Survey, was conducted over nine months by a team of university professors from across the country.

"To a degree, Latinos understand the challenges in American society in ways very consistent with the way the majority of Americans understand them," said Luis R. Fraga, a political scientist at Stanford University who worked on the survey. "At the same time they understand the unique position they hold and the unique challenges they face."

Latinos tend to be more conservative than most Democrats on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, according to the survey. Education and economic issues are also important _ as they are for most voters. But they can carry extra weight for Hispanics because they tend to have lower incomes and lower education levels than non-Hispanic whites.

"There is a phrase, the 'aspiration agenda,'" Fraga said. "It appeals to Latino voters by focusing on their aspirations to move ahead in American society."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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