Eric Draper  /  AP
President Bush, then running for his first term in office, poses with Latino voters in May 2000 in Santa Ana, Calif. Bush seems to have been more popular with Latinos than any other GOP president before him.
By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 3/21/2005 4:51:55 PM ET 2005-03-21T21:51:55

Maybe it’s the Texas-twangy Spanish he speaks, or his pro-immigrant views, or formerly governing a state that shares a border with Mexico, or even his Latino-heartthrob nephew. But whatever the reason, George W. Bush seems to have been more popular with Latino voters than any other Republican presidential candidate before him.

In 1996, two years after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California championed Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from receiving health and social services and which infuriated the Latino community, Bob Dole received support from just 21 percent of Latino voters, according to exit polls. But in 2000, Bush increased that amount to 35 percent. And last year, exit polls showed him winning the support of 44 percent of Latino voters — although a later analysis by NBC News lowered that figure to a still-impressive 40 percent.

That standing will certainly be on display Wednesday, when Bush meets at his Crawford ranch with Mexican President Vicente Fox to discuss, among other things, Bush’s plan to grant legal status to millions of undocumented workers who live in this country. The meeting will also give Bush another opportunity to practice his Spanish and call Fox “un amigo de mio y tambien un amigo de los Estados Unidos” (translation: a friend of mine and also a friend of the United States), as he did when the two men toured Ohio in 2001.

Growing numbers
But can future Republicans duplicate Bush’s success with Latinos? It’s a question, so far, that few political observers have asked. But its political importance shouldn’t be understated: According to the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino think tank, there were nearly 10 million Latino registered voters in last year’s election who cast approximately 7 million votes, and it projects that those numbers will double in the next 16 years.

Latino advocates note that the Democratic Party, which historically has attracted the bulk of Latino voters, has given the Republicans an opening. In the 2004 presidential election, “the Democrats fielded candidates who don’t know the Latino community, who didn’t relate with the Latino community, and who don’t work with the Latino community,” said Cecilia Munoz, the vice president of public policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group. In addition, Bush has appointed some Latinos to key positions in his Cabinet — such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, and former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez (now a U.S. senator) — something probably not lost on the Latino community.

Even so, Munoz and other Latino advocates argue that the upcoming debate over Bush’s immigration proposal could influence the GOP’s future success with Latino voters. “If the anti-immigrants win this debate, that’s going to leave an impression,” Munoz said. “But if Bush signs credible reform that’s going to leave an impression, too.”

As political experts have already noted, the 2008 presidential election will be the first wide-open race — with no incumbent or vice president running — since 1928. And not surprisingly, there are several credible GOP candidates who might run, such as Virginia Sen. George Allen, Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But Latino advocacy groups say few of these potential candidates have a strong bond with Latino voters and organizations. One exception, they say, is McCain, who hails from a border state like Bush does and will be sponsoring legislation in the Senate to grant legal status to illegal immigrants. Another exception is Bush’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who (so far) has ruled out a bid for president.

Shared views
Nevertheless, Republican pollster Ed Goeas thinks his party’s gains with Latino voters will continue — no matter the nominee — because the party and Latino voters have similar views on religion and entrepreneurship. “Now that the door is open, it is open to all Republicans. There was always an appeal toward the Republican Party.”

Fellow GOP pollster David Winston agrees that Latino support isn’t unique to Bush, noting congressional-level exit polls in 2004 showed that House Republicans received the exact same support from Latinos as Bush did. “It’s just not Bush,” he said. “It’s the entire party.”

But Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster who specializes in surveying the Latino electorate, isn’t so sure. On issues ranging from raising the minimum wage to expanding health-care insurance, he says, the GOP is often at odds with many Latino voters. Yet Bush has still made gains with them because of his charismatic connection with these voters — something that can’t easily be replicated. “You either have it or you don’t,” Bendixen said. “You couldn’t teach it to Bill Frist or to John Kerry.”

Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who writes about ethnicity and immigration, believes that Latino voters are certainly an opportunity for future Republican candidates — but not a given. She agrees with Goeas that many Latinos hold conservative values like religion, tradition and entrepreneurship. “So, in lots of way, they’re natural Republicans,” Jacoby said. She points out, however, that they are pragmatic voters. “They vote for who does a better job on the issues they care about.”

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One of those, Jacoby says, is immigration reform. And it’s one of the few issues that deeply divide today’s Republican Party. Under Bush’s plan, which was unveiled in January 2004, the federal government would offer temporary-worker status for three years to undocumented men and women currently living in the United States. Although the White House insists that the plan won’t enable illegal immigrants to earn citizenship or permanent residency, they would have the opportunity to renew their guest-worker status for at least another three years. Some Republicans support Bush’s proposal because they think it’s good for business, good for national security (because it brings illegal immigrant out of the shadows) and good for politics. But others think it will eliminate good-paying jobs for American workers and will reward lawlessness.

While groups opposed to Bush’s plan say that immigration ranks below many other issues in polls among Latinos, Jacoby notes that immigration is still a “threshold” issue for many of them. “It asks, ‘Are you on our side or not?’” she said. “They are not even going to listen to you if you are bashing immigrants.”

Latino advocates argue that the loudest opposition to Bush’s immigration proposal comes from a faction of House Republicans, and they say the debate over this issue could impact Latinos’ support of the Republican Party. Indeed, at a press conference last week, GOP activist and strategist Grover Norquist lashed out at House Republicans like Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who oppose granting legal status to illegal immigrants. Norquist said that Tancredo's views were a reason why he hasn't become governor or a U.S. senator.

“Who in the end will dominate the debate over immigration?” asked Bendixen, the Democratic pollster. “Bush and his progressive policies, or the extreme right wing? That is why this is so risky for the Republican Party.”

Immigration an issue that lacks power?
But Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes Bush’s plan, dismisses the idea that immigration is an issue that sways Latino voters. “If John Kerry and the Democrats were promising amnesty on demand [in the 2004 election], how could anyone think Bush attracted Latinos on immigration policy?” he said. “There is no empirical evidence that Latino voters shift on any aspect of immigration policy.”

Stein adds that Republicans could lose support from Latino voters if they are perceived as insulting or demeaning Latinos. “That is not an immigration issue. That is a tone issue.” Moreover, Stein and other opponents of Bush’s immigration reform plan contend that they are hardly out of the mainstream on this issue, since polls find that a majority of Americans oppose a guest-worker program.

Goeas, the GOP pollster, admits there is danger that a contentious debate over immigration could alienate some Latino voters. Still, he said, “the face of the party for the next three years is going to be Bush. I don’t think that’s superceded by any of the House Republicans” who oppose Bush’s immigration reform.

Regardless of the immigration debate’s outcome, there is little doubt that Bush has made significant inroads with Latino voters. And Democrats say they have their own work to do to bring them back into the fold. “I think that ’04 was like getting hit in the head with a bat,” Bendixen said. “That 40 percent [that Bush received from Latinos] is a scary figure for the Democrats.”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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