Kerry in New Mexico
Jake Schoellkopf  /  AP file
Senator John Kerry at a campaign event at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico in July.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 10/19/2004 12:57:21 PM ET 2004-10-19T16:57:21

California, a state known for exporting everything from almonds to Pentium computer chips, is now exporting Latino politicians to four Southwestern states where the campaigns of President Bush and Senator Kerry are in a dead heat, according to opinion polls.

Both parties feel their efforts will be more profitable in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada than in California, which is considered safely in the John Kerry camp.

At stake in the four states are 29 electoral votes, two more than Florida and an electoral jackpot for both campaigns, which see the Latino vote as key.

The population has soared in the region in recent years. According to the U.S. Census, Hispanics constitute 34 percent of the populations of Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado in 2000, up from 18.8 percent in 1990.

"In those crucial states the Latino voters could tip the scale," said Congressman Bob Pacheco (R-Calif.), who heads the Bush-Cheney Latino campaign in his state.  "We are doing everything we can to get them." 

As part of this strategy, California Latino Republicans like former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin and Small Business Administration Director Hector Barreto have campaigned in Colorado and New Mexico with President Bush.

Democrats also are exporting prominent Latinos to adjacent states.

Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Co-Chair of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in California, and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, among others, have helped Kerry court Latino voters outside California.

And at the grassroots level, members of the Service Employees International Union are holding fundraisers and riding buses from Los Angeles to Arizona and Nevada, targeting Latino voters.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the standard-bearer for the Democrats in the Southwest, believes that "an increased Latino turnout in those four states will tilt toward Senator Kerry."

"We lose those four states and we lose the election," he said. "Right now we are dead even in New Mexico, Arizona a little behind, Nevada dead even and Colorado dead even."

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No wonder then that both Bush and Kerry have stumped repeatedly through the Southwest.

Courting rituals
How to properly court Latinos is a challenge for both parties, as voters they are becoming increasingly complex and unpredictable.

Bush vs. Kerry issue-by-issue"Latinos are looking at issues and voting their interests," said Arturo Vargas, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

NALEO held community town hall meetings throughout the country to help identify issues of concern to Latino voters.

"They universally identified education as the most pressing issue facing this community," Vargas said. "If either party hopes to capture the Latino electorate, they need to get their message across about the future of public education to this important segment of the population."

According to NALEO's survey, another issue at the top of Latino concerns is the economy. "They want jobs that pay a living wage because many of them are not earning enough," he said. Latinos are also worried about access to health care, the war in Iraq and terrorism.

Immigration reform is also a matter of concern to Latinos but it is not the top issue on their agenda. While it is true that many Hispanics are recent immigrants, 60 percent of the voters are U.S. born and their main concerns mirror those of other Americans.

There is also the issue of language. Traditionally campaigns target Latino voters in Spanish, largely a "symbolic cultural gesture," according to Dr. Christine Sierra, a Political Science/Latino Studies professor at the University of New Mexico.

But, Sierra added, “Latino families are saying wait a minute, let's talk substance. Let's talk about the issues that are really near and dear to us. We are important. Show us what you are going to be able to do for us."

Social issues create a dividing line
When it comes to party association, a majority of Latinos (60-70 percent) identify with the Democrats on social issues, but on certain topics, voters like Horacio Sequeira favor the GOP.

"I am a Catholic," explained Sequeira, a naturalized U.S. citizen. "I am against the war in Iraq and my three children are for Kerry, but I am voting for Bush because of his position on abortion and gay marriage," a fact not lost on Republicans.

Last week the conservative group, "Focus on the Family," started running a Spanish language media campaign entitled "Vote por sus Valores" or "Vote your values" aimed at Roman Catholics and other Christians.

In the 2000 election only 45 percent of eligible Latino voters cast ballots, short of the national average.

In that election, Bush carried Colorado, Nevada and Arizona and lost in New Mexico by only 366 votes.

This time around Democrats are placing their hopes on new voters.

"We have really outgunned the Republicans when it comes to new registrations," said Richardson, who claims that 150,000 new voters have registered in the four contested states, many of them young Latinos.

Both parties see gains and are mobilizing to register Latinos.

"This election will see the largest participation by Latinos in American history," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Cecilia Alvear is an NBC News producer based out of Burbank.

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