IMAGE: Hispanic Marcelina Neria Ceniceros
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
Marcelina Neria Ceniceros works in her bakery in Marshalltown, Iowa. Several Democratic presidential hopefuls have said they are focusing on Iowa Hispanics, arguing that the small but growing population could be a key in determining the top finishers in the state's precinct caucuses.
updated 8/27/2007 2:11:22 PM ET 2007-08-27T18:11:22

Democratic presidential candidates say they are reaching out to Hispanics - a group that could play a key role in Iowa's caucuses.

But apparently they need to stretch a little further. Most Hispanics say they didn't know they were being courted.

"I don't see anything," says Sam Carbajal, who works for the school district in Marshalltown, a farming and manufacturing town in central Iowa.

It's the same to the east in Cedar Rapids, said Jesse Martinez, a field organizer with the Eastern Iowa Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

"I haven't seen any outreach (of candidates) coming into the community," Martinez said. "That's the general consensus ... when are they going to come talk to us? So far, nothing."

Nevertheless, with immigration reform emerging as one of the top issues of the 2008 campaign, Democrats say Iowa's small but growing Hispanic community could turn out for Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. In a close contest, Hispanics could make the difference in who finishes first.

Among candidates' efforts to win Hispanic support:

  • Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has a full-time staffer in charge of Hispanic outreach efforts, and he has hosted meetings and conference calls with leaders in the community. Spokesman Tommy Vietor calls it "a concerted effort to reach out to Latino organizations and voters in Iowa."
  • New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was raised in Mexico City, has hired bilingual staffers and directed them toward regions of Iowa with significant Hispanic populations. "We are focusing considerable attention on parts of the state with larger Hispanic populations and we're making sure the Hispanic population knows the governor is one of them," said spokesman Tom Reynolds.
  • New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will soon release a list of Hispanic leaders in Iowa who support her campaign, said Iowa spokeswoman Stephanie Bjornson. The campaign earlier named a national Hispanic Leadership Council that included two Iowans - union leader Miguel Moreno and Alfred Ramirez, executive director of the Cedar Rapids nonprofit group Diversity Focus.

Many candidates, small edges
One difficulty campaigns face in reaching Hispanic voters is that Iowa's relatively small Hispanic population is scattered in burgs and hamlets throughout the state, rather than concentrated in a few communities.

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Iowa has an estimated 114,700 Hispanics, making up less than 4 percent of the state's population. In 2004, when the number of Hispanics was somewhat smaller, the U.S. Census estimated that 24,000 Hispanics in the state were U.S. citizens and 13,000 were registered to vote. That year, the census estimated that 12,000 Hispanics voted.

Still, the Hispanic population is up 39 percent since 2000 as immigrants move to Iowa, drawn by work in meatpacking plants and other blue-collar jobs.

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Though the community is small, the attention given to the state's Hispanics reflects the political reality that with so many candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, building an edge within any group could provide the margin of victory.

Outreach questioned
Armando Villareal, administrator of the Iowa Division of Latino Affairs, said campaigns and Hispanic leaders are working to register Hispanic voters. He estimated that Hispanics could comprise up to 15 percent of caucus-goers.

But it will take an aggressive outreach effort to come close to that figure, and Martinez, the Cedar Rapids field organizer, isn't seeing it.

Martinez expressed frustration that the parties and candidates haven't done more to register Hispanic voters and explain how the state's caucus system works. Iowa's precinct caucuses may attract hordes of candidates and extended media coverage, but the event remains a mystery to many people new to the state.

"(Hispanics) just don't know what to do," Martinez said. "I'm only one person and I can't teach everybody, and that's where it's the campaigns' responsibility to start training and educating their potential voters of what a caucus is."

The immigration factor
Rolando Gaytan, a computer engineering student at Iowa State University who works in his parents' grocery store in Marshalltown every weekend, said he can't understand why Democratic candidates haven't made a harder push for Hispanic votes.

Gaytan said he usually votes Republican but thinks discontent among many Hispanics over the failed immigration reform effort in Congress could spur many to attend the caucuses and support Democratic candidates. The immigration measure failed in large part due to Republican opposition.

So far, though, Gaytan hasn't heard of any Democrats trying to rally Hispanics. Although his parents' store is just down the street from a county Democratic Party office, no one has asked him to post party flyers or candidate information.

"You'd think they'd target the Hispanic businesses with posters and whatnot but we haven't gotten anything from anyone," he said.

Working from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days, Marshalltown bakery owner Marcelina Neria Ceniceros said she hasn't had time to learn much about the presidential candidates. Before she attends the caucuses, she'll carve out some time to catch up on the candidates, but she'd appreciate some help.

"How is the Hispanic community going to get involved if you're not involving them?" she asked

About 80 miles away in Perry, where Hispanics make up a quarter of the population, community organizer Eddie Diaz said he thinks candidates still have time to connect with Hispanics. He said their intentions should become clearer after several upcoming events, such as next month's Latino Heritage Festival in Des Moines.

"If you see candidates at those things," Diaz said, "then you'd see them targeting the general community more than they are right now."

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

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