Presidential contenders from Mike Huckabee to Hillary Clinton are courting the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez with ingratiating calls, offers to meet and VIP invitations to debates. Why all the attention? As president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), which includes close to 18,000 Latino evangelical churches, he's a conduit to the fastest-growing subset of evangelicals. In 2004, Hispanic evangelicals, who tend to be more conservative than Roman Catholic Latinos, voted mostly for George W. Bush. But many have grown disenchanted with the GOP because of the party's stridency on immigration. Democrats, who ignored Rodriguez in 2004, are now wooing him as aggressively as—if not more so than—Republicans. The GOP "has done an incredible job of alienating a key constituency," says Rodriguez, 38, who may make a personal endorsement in the 2008 race. "This could be a tipping point that's not reversed for a number of generations."
Though immigration, the economy and family values top his list of priorities, Rodriguez is intent on broadening the debate. As he sees it, evangelicals in general tend to concentrate so much of their energy on issues like gay marriage that they neglect problems like poverty, AIDS and the environment. "We're going to change the conversation," he says. "Latinos don't embody extremism. Latinos are the quintessential compassionate righteousness-and justice group." Another of his goals: to foster greater political engagement by Latinos, whose turnout at the polls has often disappointed. In the buildup to Election Day, the NHCLC will be organizing voter-registration drives, hosting candidate forums and issuing a "Latino Christian manifesto" of core Hispanic values.
Raised in Bethlehem, Pa., by Puerto Rican parents, Rodriguez grew up in an Assemblies of God church (and now pastors one in Sacramento, Calif.). He delivered his first sermon when he was 16 and quickly grew to be a rousing and acclaimed preacher. In 2000 he founded the NHCLC, which became the Hispanic arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, and began cultivating a network of Latino community leaders nationwide. "I want to be a voice for our people," he says. Presidential aspirants will be listening.