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Week of 1.11.08

Transcript: The Latino Vote 2008

BRANCACCIO: I'm here in Florida, to continue our series Adventures in Democracy 2008.

Here's the question: How does the immigration debate play out in swing states with large Hispanic populations - Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada? If you look at an electoral map, you'll find it's nearly impossible to win the presidency without winning most of these states.

You'd think all the anti-immigrant talk would torpedo Republican chances in these states. But with the Florida primary just about two weeks away, the Dems have yet to close the deal with Hispanic voters. In fact, Republican candidates hope Hispanics will be drawn to the party's message on faith and national security.

Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Na Eng have our report.

HINOJOSA: This stretch of interstate marks a new battleground in politics. The I-4 corridor cuts across central Florida, from Tampa to Daytona Beach. On the tourist map, it's all about fun in the sun. But on the political map, it's where the Old South runs right up against a new wave of Latino voters.

Immigration has become one of the most volatile political issues of 2008; and in much of the country, beating the anti-immigration drum is a sure-fire way for candidates to get attention. But will it win votes here—where a new group is emerging as a political force to reckon with? The communities along the corridor are changing rapidly as more Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Central Americans move to the area... and start voting.

LUIS DE ROSA: My feeling basically is Hispanics, we're all Americans. Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, and we're very proud to be Americans. We live and work and pay taxes and put food on the table like everyone else.

HINOJOSA: These Puerto Rican voters came to talk to us at a local chamber of commerce in Melbourne, Florida. They're part of a growing group of swing voters in this swing state.

It might surprise you to find out that they're not all Democrats. Several of them, such as Sam Lopez, voted for Republicans in the past.

SAM LOPEZ: I voted for Bush because I thought that there was a Latin connection.

HINOJOSA: Consider this, twenty percent of the people living in Florida are Latino. It's even higher across most of the southwest: and these are battleground states with a lot of electoral votes. That means the next President of the United States needs to win over this room.

Do you think the Republican candidates care deeply about the Puerto Rican community?

SAM LOPEZ: Well, I think they better care because if it comes down—the election comes down to Florida and it comes to Central Florida, where—right now over 500,000 Puerto Ricans live, they better care.

HINOJOSA: Lopez has been disappointed with the Republicans this primary season. He sees the G.O.P. turning its back on Latinos.

SAM LOPEZ: On the Republican side, the debates have been sharp, to the point—nasty—very personal—very divisive.

HINOJOSA: The Republicans have tried to smooth things over. Rudy Giuliani released this ad Tuesday in Florida - en espagnol. After the dismal results in Iowa and New Hampshire, he knows he needs Latinos in Florida. And when we looked back to see how the candidates spoke at a Spanish language forum last month, the tone was well... nice.

MIKE HUCKABEE: When people come to this country, they shouldn't fear. They shouldn't live in hiding.

MITT ROMNEY: Hispanics are brave, and they are free as are all the people of this great nation.

HINOJOSA: Compare that to the message the candidates blasted in the early primary states.

-TANCREDO AD: Mothers killed. Children executed. The tactics of vicious Central American gangs, now on U.S. soil.

-GIULIANI AD: People are frustrated over immigration because the government has been talking about solving this for twenty or twenty-five years, and it's just gotten worse.

-HUCKABEE AD: Mike Huckabee will fight to secure our borders... We should make it clear that we will say no to amnesty and no to sanctuary cities. Our borders have to be secure.

HINOJOSA: But the Republicans have a problem. This kind of message is going over like a lead balloon in the I-4 corridor.

BOBBY RODRIGUEZ: I voted Republican in the past. But there's nothing there that really, really attracts me right now.

HINOJOSA: The voters here echo what polls show is happening nationally with Latino voters. They're being turned off by the constant hammering against illegal immigration...

Most of you in this room are Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens. They always are, have been U.S. citizens. So why does the issue of immigration, undocumented immigration, matter to a Puerto Rican voter?

BOBBY RODRIGUEZ: I've marched for the Mexican community and for the people that are undocumented here in Port St. Lucie. You know why? Because those are our brothers, no matter what. They're human beings.

HINOJOSA: How many of you feel—raise your hands—that the issue has gone beyond just talking about illegal immigration, and it's now become an issue of anti-Latino attacks?

BOBBY RODRIGUEZ: I would say that. Absolutely.

HINOJOSA: All of you.

SAM LOPEZ: The hatred and the—and the venom is so sharp.

LUIS DE ROSA: Middle America is losing their jobs. So middle America is now blaming the brown people. And we're not to blame. And that's a problem.

HINOJOSA: That's one way to look at this problem. Tom Feeney sees it from the other side. He's a Republican who represents the Congressional district next door.

REP. TOM FEENEY: ...something like 75 percent of individuals in gangs in Los Angeles are illegal immigrants...

HINOJOSA: Feeney's seat looks vulnerable this election year. He's betting a hard line against illegal immigration will put him over the top this November. He claims he's simply responding to the flood of angry phone calls he gets from his constituents.

CALLER: I think it is time we stop turning our backs to all that is going on right in front of our noses, and close our borders. Stop employing people that are taking away jobs that belong rightfully to citizens of the United States.

CONGRESSMAN TOM FEENEY: Regardless of what topic I choose to start the conversation with, it almost always—ends up that the wide majority of callers are anxious to talk about immigration policy.

HINOJOSA: Why do you believe that immigration is a concern of voters now?

CONGRESSMAN TOM FEENEY: I would put it into one word, security. Every issue I run on will be tied to security. People are concerned about the security of their job.

HINOJOSA: Yes, job security and economic anxiety are high in the minds of voters this election year. In Florida, homeowners are struggling with the housing meltdown. The state has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. The cost of living here has shot up while wages remain stagnant. But with these economic problems, what voters are hearing is: immigration, immigration, immigration.

Do you believe that running on an anti-immigrant platform is essentially for you and your re-election campaign a winning issue with your constituency?

CONGRESSMAN TOM FEENEY: Well, it's an important issue to my constituents and, in that sense, yes. It's also important because it separates me from President Bush who has been very weak on immigration policy.

HINOJOSA: President Bush had indeed done a lot of thinking about Latinos and immigration policy. In fact, he made a concerted effort to focus on Latinos in his presidential campaigns.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: "The American dream is for everybody."

HINOJOSA: In 2004, Bush out-spent John Kerry five to one to get the Latino vote. And it paid off.

BUSH AD: We all know that Latino vote could be the deciding factor.

HINOJOSA: He set a record for a Republican presidential candidate- winning 40% of the Latino vote. Even Democratic strategists were impressed, including Miami-based Cuban American Joe Garcia.

JOE GARCIA: It was an unprecedented effort that yielded unprecedented results. It was the "I love you" campaign, by George Bush. The ads were called Te Conosco. "I know you." And he did. He was from Texas. You know, he—he—he had, you know, he'd probably peed by a pickup truck with a Mexican just like anyone else who's been from Texas. But the reality is, that—that dynamic of knowing these folks—was very powerful.

HINOJOSA: Last spring, President Bush tried to come up with a historic compromise on immigration, but he was undercut by members of his own party. Rather than support the President, conservative Republicans in Congress denounced the measures as quote "amnesty". Immigration divided the country and deeply split the Republican Party. Nobody pushed that anti-immigration message harder than Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo.

TANCREDO AD: There are consequences to open borders beyond the 20 million aliens who have come to take our jobs. Islamic terrorists now freely roam U.S. soil. Jihadists who froth with hate here to do as they have in London, Spain, Russia. The price we pay for spineless politicians who refuse to defend our borders against those who come to kill.

HINOJOSA: While Tancredo dropped out of the presidential race a few weeks ago, he succeeded in changing the tone of the debate over immigration.

REP. TOM TANCREDO: All I've heard is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo. It is great. I am so happy to hear it.

HINOJOSA: Feeney frames the immigration debate in the same way, using highly charged language. Here he is visiting the border.

REP. TOM FEENEY: Obviously 9/11 has taught us that the days when—one madman or a group of bad people could—do some harm—has changed dramatically. A biological, a chemical or a nuclear weapon means that you could see a hundred or five hundred thousand people wiped out with a single act. And so, it's incumbent on America to know who is coming, what their background is and what they're up to while they're here.

HINOJOSA: Congressman Feeney's Democratic opponents have also taken tough positions on immigration. But critics claim Feeney is trying to simply divert voters attention from his own ethical problems...such as the perks he received through convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

So when your critics say that, you, Congressman, are in fact focusing on illegal immigration in order to divert attention from the fact that you have been swept up with Jack Abramoff, who's now in prison, you say what?

CONGRESSMAN TOM FEENEY: Oh, I think that's hardly a concern of anybody in District 24. People are really concerned about the security of their healthcare, their jobs. They're concerned about the threat of foreign terror. And they're concerned about the security of our border. And when we talk to constituents, that's exactly the things they focus on. Border security's probably number one in central Florida right now.

HINOJOSA: This tough talk disturbs Sam Lopez, especially when politicians connect the terrorist attacks of September 11 to undocumented Latino immigrants.

SAM LOPEZ: You're being told this over and over again, that terrorists are crossing the border, that terrorists—that these people are terrorists. And they're being fed all of this fear day in and day out, 24/7—people react.

JOE GARCIA: Inevitably, creating this hot issue gets you votes.

HINOJOSA: Joe Garcia says using the politics of fear will only get political candidates so far. He says the Republican Party is looking for short term gains at the expense of Latinos.

JOE GARCIA: What they are doing is—mortgaging the future. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, it is rumored that he said to colleagues from the South, "I'm handing over the South for two generations to Republicans," because he was going to lose middle-class, white voters to the Republican party, which—which had been Democrats.

You know what? He did it anyway. And with it, he did, he made a moral move that had a political price. The Republicans now are doing a move that makes absolutely no moral sense, because Hispanics are necessary to America's continued growth. They're necessary for the economy. And on top of that, there is absolutely no benefit politically.

HINOJOSA: So why are they doing it? Lionel Sosa says it's all about energizing the base. He's a veteran political consultant who has worked on six Republican presidential campaigns over the years.

As a Republican Latino, when you look at what's going on with the Republicans, your party, in terms of the issue of immigration, what do you see?

LIONEL SOSA: I don't like it. I don't like it at all. But, I understand what they're doing. Right now they're trying to get nominated. And there is no way that they're gonna win the nomination if they take a real easy stance on immigration.

HINOJOSA: But this high-stakes gamble has some top national Republican figures worried about that possible backlash with Latinos in the voting booths. And those impressive gains made by Bush could wash away.

And it's already happening in Florida, says Mike Rios. He works on Latino outreach at the elections office in Palm Beach County.

MIKE RIOS: There is a switch. I work in the Supervisor of Elections Office. And what I've experienced first hand is that I'm seeing a lot of people switching from Republican to Democrats.

HINOJOSA: Congressman Tom Feeney, however, is unfazed by the long term political risk.

When you hear political analysts who say that they're witnessing, literally, a U-turn in terms of Latinos, turning away from the Republican Party towards the Democrats because of the issue of immigration, how much does that worry you?

CONGRESSMAN TOM FEENEY: It's a concern, but it's a relatively minor concern because I think Latinos are very rational people. I think they love America. I think when we can fix the border that Latinos will come home to Republican Party.

HINOJOSA: There were many people who said, "This talk is beginning to sound racist." It's a very heavy term to use in relationship to the Republican Party. And you say?

CONGRESSMAN TOM FEENEY: Well, I don't believe that the majority of Republicans are racist or xenophobic or bigoted. But Republicans do believe in enforcing the law. I think Democrats should believe in enforcing the law, I think Americans of all stripes ought to believe in enforcing the law.

HINOJOSA: If the Republicans could put the harsh anti-immigration talk behind them, more Latinos may be willing to join their camp. Latinos too are concerned about the problem of illegal immigration.

JOE GARCIA: The reality is that most Hispanics were more conservative than Caucasian whites. Why? Because Jose Garcia competes with Pepe Garcia, competes with Pedro Garcia, who just crossed the border.

And they're willing to do my job for a tenth of the price and just a smile in the morning, because they're looking for an opportunity in America. So, Hispanics know the immigration system's broken. They wanna fix it.

HINOJOSA: At a Mitt Romney campaign event in Little Havana, this Republican voter says he worries that illegal immigration could hurt his retirement.

EDDIE AGUIRRE: We have a lot of illegal immigrants here. One of the things that scares me the most is when I retire, is there going to be enough money for me or enough social security money for me and my children? Immigration needs to be fixed and right now it's a total mess.

HINOJOSA: This coming from the son of immigrants from Peru.

And not everyone in the Republican Party has joined the tough line bandwagon. There's Senator John McCain, for example. He argues Latinos are a natural fit with the party's values.

JOHN MCCAIN: We are a natural—a natural base for our Hispanic citizenry. Hispanic citizens my friends are small business oriented, less regulation, lower taxes, pro-family, -pro-church, pro-military.

HINOJOSA: The McCain camp is hoping to build from its victory in New Hampshire and use his moderate stance on immigration to help him gain ground against the frontrunner in Florida, Rudy Giuliani.

LIONEL SOSA: Latinos are very conservative. We are very conservative people. We want to be equal "Americans." We don't want the government to take care of us. In our hearts, we believe that given the opportunity, we can make it on our own. We just don't want anybody getting in our way. Well, that's the Republican philosophy.

HINOJOSA: And while the Hispanic voters we spent time with along the I-4 corridor are clearly unhappy with the Republicans so far, this doesn't necessarily translate into an automatic victory for the Democrats.

LUIS DE ROSA: The Democrats, in some cases, are no better. They need to wake up also.

RICHARDSON: I am ending my campaign for President...

HINOJOSA: This week, the first Latino presidential candidate - Democrat Bill Richardson - dropped out of the race. Next week, the Democrats head to Nevada and then it's on to Super Tuesday primaries —including California and New York, where large Latino populations will have a big say on who wins the nomination. So far, Hillary Clinton has the most support from Hispanics.

The Democrats are also in trouble with their own immigration message.

We looked back at how Barack Obama answered an immigration question during a debate.

BARACK OBAMA: As president, I will make sure that we finally have the kind of border security that we need. That's step number one. Step number two is to take on employers. Right now, they —an employer has more of a chance of getting hit by lightning than be prosecuted for hiring an undocumented worker.

HINOJOSA: The bottom line, says Lionel Sosa is that neither party has stood up for Latino voters.

Do you really see, from the Republicans or the Democrats, a kind of platform that says—"We understand U.S. Latino voters, citizens." And we wanna reach out.

LIONEL SOSA: Well, I can say that they're both letting the Latino down at this point. We expect the Democrats to step up to the plate. They are not doing it. Because they don't want—know how to handle this hot potato. And they can't handle it so that everybody will be happy with it. So they stay away from it. Now, that is going to have very negative consequences as well.

HINOJOSA: It turns out, some liberals and others who make up the Democratic base also worry about the negative consequences of illegal immigration. This includes working class African Americans.

T. WILLARD FAIR: Illegal immigration is the most important issue facing Black America today.

HINOJOSA: T. Willard Fair has long been fighting for more opportunities for blacks. He's the president of the Urban League in Miami, but his views here are his own.

T. WILLARD FAIR: You'd have to be blind not to have seen what has happened as a result of both legal and illegal immigration and its impact on the social, economic and political prosperity of black folks.

HINOJOSA: When Fair moved to Florida a generation ago, he was optimistic as African Americans started to find jobs in tourism, restaurants and the construction business. But then he says he watched those same jobs go to immigrants.

T. WILLARD FAIR: When I came here, we were just beginning to take advantage of those things being offered by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

We were just beginning to take advantage of the new attitude mandated by the Federal Government as to what should happen in the private sector for employment, educational opportunities, etc. And as soon as we got on the launching pad, rather than take off for the moon, a new group of people came into the community.

HINOJOSA: Some prominent Civil Rights advocates have rallied for the rights of immigrants. But behind closed doors, Fair claims that many African Americans privately resent the large presence of immigrants.

T. WILLARD FAIR: I will not vote for anybody, nor will I recommend to my friends, nor will I allow anybody in my house to vote for anybody who does not, quote, unquote, come up very strong against illegal immigration.

HINOJOSA: What's becoming increasingly clear is that in Florida and the other swing states, both parties will have to come to terms with the immigration issue like never before.

Not only is the Latino vote growing. But the anti-immigration debate itself is galvanizing many Latinos to vote for the first time. It's happening all over the country. In a classroom in Apopka, Florida, there's been a spike in the number of legal Latino residents choosing to become citizens.

STUDENT: It's important for all citizens to vote...

HINOJOSA: Sister Anne Kendrick is a long time advocate for immigrants in this rural community—also along the I-4 corridor.

SISTER ANNE KENDRICK: I think people are mobilizing and I think they are angry and upset.

HINOJOSA: She says politicians ignore this group at their own peril.

KENDRICK: I think clearly this population will have become citizens, will be organized to vote, will understand the issues. And people who don't support their community will feel it at the poll.

HINOJOSA: Nationally, it's a long term trend political strategists are watching closely. Latinos already make up the largest minority group in the country. One estimate shows that by 2050, one out of four Americans will be Latino.

JOE GARCIA: This is the fastest growing electorate in the country. The fastest growing demographic. You don't fight demographics.

HINOJOSA: But in the effort to win over this emerging demographic group, politicians also risk alienating people like T. Willard Fair even further.

T. WILLARD FAIR: Nobody wants to do anything about it because they are afraid that this big party of Hispanic people are gonna be upset. And they are willing to have me upset, as opposed to them being upset. And that's insulting.

HINOJOSA: At stake is a path to the White House - both in this election and beyond.

Some critics say that there is too much emphasis being played on the role of the Latino voters. In fact, how important is the Latino voter in this election?

LIONEL SOSA: Nobody can win without the Latino vote. You know, in 2000,Florida won the election for Bush. But what people don't know is that Bush got 6,000 more Latino votes in Florida than did Gore. So the Latino has already elected one President of the United States. It can happen again.

BRANCACCIO: Captivated by the election year? Check out our multi-media tools that you can use to chart your own Adventures in Democracy - customized to the issues and candidates that matter to you. You'll find all these by following the links over on our website.

And that's it for NOW. From aboard the Whistle Stop train parked near Jacksonville, Florida, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.