Obama needs to work fast to gain Latino vote in state, political observers say

SACRAMENTO -- Sen. Barack Obama says he has built a diverse coalition to win the presidency, blind to differences of race, gender or age.

But in California, where Latinos voted Democratic by a 2-1 ratio in 2004 and are expected to make up a quarter of Tuesday's Democratic electorate, Obama's inability to connect with the Latino community cannot be ignored.

In statewide polls dating to April, Latino voters overwhelmingly have favored Obama's rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, by a 3-1 ratio. It is a major reason Clinton has maintained a double-digit lead over Obama in California.

In a final-week push, Obama is challenging the numbers. He's expected to dispatch Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., popular among Latinos for his immigrant rights record, to campaign on his behalf.

He's launched a Spanish-language ad featuring a picture of Kennedy, in which Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., seeks to make the case that Obama's racial background gives him something in common with Latino voters.

"We know what it feels like being used as a scapegoat just because of our background and last name," the campaign's translation of the ad says. "And no one understands this better than Barack Obama!"

With the Tuesday primary looming, Obama faces numerous challenges with Latino voters, say longtime observers of California politics. Hurdles include his lack of name identification, Latino affection for Clinton and her husband, and a less visible platform on health care.

"She has a name, you know, she has a whole legacy," said Angelica Reyes, a 30-year-old financial educator from Santa Cruz. "It's just that a lot of people don't know Barack. She has that leg-acy with the Latino community. She has the legacy of the Clintons and the name recognition, and that is really hard to compete with."

Clinton endorsed by UFW

Reyes attended a rally for Clinton last week in Salinas at which the New York senator received an endorsement from the United Farm Workers, the labor group co-founded by activist César Chávez.

There, a mariachi band serenaded hundreds in the small Hartnell College gymnasium and supporters held signs reading "America con Hillary." She said she wanted to issue $3,500 tax credits for college students, freeze interest rates for struggling home borrowers and reduce class size. She hardly mentioned her husband, but many voters said he is a major reason they like her.

"I think Latino voters feel like Bill Clinton did do a lot for Latinos," said Maricela Lopez, 36, an entrepreneur from Greenfield, in Kern County. "They see that she can do more for us, the Latinos, like her husband did."

President Clinton won 71 percent of the California Latino vote in 1992 and 85 percent in 1996, according to the William C. Velasquez Institute. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez praised the Clintons this week for reaching out, including awarding Chávez the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1994.

Albert M. Camarillo, a Stanford history professor and expert on Mexican-American his-tory, said Hillary Clinton has tapped into a nostalgia that La-tino voters may have for the 1990s. He said that was a particularly prosperous period for Latinos in California, as well as one in which they embraced Democrats because of anti-illegal immigrant policies pursued by Republicans.

"You have a younger generation that is less tied to the Clinton legacy, but for their parents, I think it's really hard for Obama to make inroads," he said.

Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University, North- ridge, said Clinton may be winning Latino votes because she is viewed as a health care champion and has focused on the econ-omy during her campaign. Both issues, he said, are of critical importance to Latino voters.

Obama has touted his relationships with Latinos in the Midwest. He backs driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, which Clinton does not, and has vowed to pursue immigration reform with a path toward legalization.

While state Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and labor leader Maria Elena Durazo endorse Obama, Clinton is supported by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, the state's two leading Latino politicians.

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