Where Will the 2008 Presidential Race Be Decided?

In the wide Southwestern arc of the country, which stretches from Fresno, Calif., and Las Vegas through Phoenix and Albuquerque, N.M., to Houston, millions of Americans—and millions of want-to-be Americans, here legally or illegally—rise each morning to the cheerful Spanish of a 36-year-old Mexican who arrived here 20 years ago in the trunk of a car. "Despiertese! Despiertese!" says Eduardo Sotelo. "Wake up! Wake up!" Known by his nickname, "El Piolin," or "Tweety Bird" (stuck on him in childhood for his small stature), Sotelo fills the hours on his syndicated Spanish-language radio show with immigration advice, Mexican ranchero tunes, mischievous prank calls and exhortations to face the day's labor with gratitude to God and America. "Why did we come to this country?" he asks his devoted audience of 11 million listeners a week. "To succeed!"In recent months, he's added a new bit to his show—an exhortation to get involved in politics. He urges legal residents to apply for citizenship so that they can vote; he asks his listeners—most of Mexican background—to support immigration reform. As one of the country's highest-rated and most influential media personalities, in any language, Sotelo inspires listeners to walk the walk when he talks the talk. Backed by his employer, Univision Radio, Tweety Bird flew to Washington from his home base in Los Angeles in June so that he could present Congress with a million letters in support of the then pending immigration bill. While he was in town, he had breakfast with President Bush, lunch with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

El Piolin's triumphant arrival in Washington marked a turning point in the ever-evolving migratory patterns of politics. In presidential elections, there are familiar battlegrounds: the seam of the Civil War border states from West Virginia to Missouri; Florida, in recent years; Ohio, always. In 2008, however, the key "swing states" could well be a brace of four in the Southwest, each with a substantial Hispanic population and all within reach of Tweety Bird's chirp: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. "It's hard to come up with any [winning] scenario for a Democrat next year without at least some of those states," says Simon Rosenberg, whose New Democratic Network has studied the terrain. Republican strategists agree. "Those four are going to be central to the '08 race," says Sen. Mel Martinez, the GOP's general chairman.

The rise of the Swing-State Southwest (and the power of the Latino voters in it) is a function of timing, geography, demographics—and the Electoral College. In 2004, three of the four states were at the top of the list of closest races between Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Bush won all three, but by narrow margins. He won New Mexico by less than 1 percent, Nevada by less than 3 percent and Colorado by less than 5 percent. Had Kerry won them all, he would have won the White House—by a single electoral vote. Arizona went solidly for Bush, but in the 2006 midterms, Democrats picked up an open House seat there that had been held by Republicans. "George W. Bush had a lot of personal appeal in the region," says Sergio Bendixen, a marketing expert and polltaker who specializes in the Latino community. "But he's not on the ballot in the '08 presidential race."

The Southwest's ascendancy is linked to one key demographic: its vast, rapidly growing—but still politically unsettled—Hispanic vote. The four states rank in the top six in terms of percentage of Latinos; most of them are from, or have roots in, Mexico and Central America. Generally speaking, they're culturally traditional, religiously devout and open to conservative appeals from the GOP. Economic populists, all too familiar with the trials of race-based discrimination, they feel an emotional bond with Democrats, too. Depending on the poll you trust, 40 to 44 percent of Latinos voted in 2004 for Bush—a result arguably more crucial to his victory than the votes he famously got among evangelicals. In 2006 the Hispanic vote that went to the GOP dropped precipitously, to 30 percent. The war in Iraq was one reason, analysts say, but the main one was the war over immigration.

The Southwest is a battleground for what is now the country's most urgent and divisive domestic issue: what to do about the 12 million (perhaps as many as 20 million) illegals in the country at this moment. Most, like El Piolin, came from Mexico by way of the Southwest border. It is an issue that has divided Republicans in the region and across the country, between hard-liners and those who advocate a "path to citizenship" for all. There are risks for Democrats as well if Congress enacts what the country comes to see as blank-check amnesty.

But the GOP faces the greater, more immediate threat. In the 2006 midterms, says Martinez, his party erred by taking a harsh line in Congress that focused on the need to build better fences and arrest illegals as felons. "We were too tough, too 'border only' and punitive," he says. By championing a more lenient immigration-reform proposal, Martinez says, the president, and allies such as Sens. John McCain and John Kyl of Arizona, hope to convince Latinos that they are sensitive to their concerns. Kyl, a Republican who balances tough talk about border security with support for a path to citizenship, got 44 percent of the Latino vote in his re-election race last year in Arizona. But Kyl's approach may not be easy for the GOP, as a whole, to follow. The "punitive" wing of the party, spoiling for a fight, may have the votes to scuttle a final deal in Congress. "If the Republicans come to be seen as anti-immigrant, it's going to damage them severely next year," predicts John Zogby, who has polled exhaustively on the topic.

In the Southwest, tone matters a lot, says Bendixen, who recently became an adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Republicans are by no means out of the ball game, he says, if they keep the conversation away from fences and felony arrests—if they are respectful, in other words. In this region of the country, he says, Latinos are supportive of tough border-control measures. "They are as concerned about crime and drugs as anyone else," he says. The key, he says, is not to imply that there is something unwholesome or unwelcome about Hispanics as a people. Politicians who talk about "anchor babies"—the idea that illegals have children so that, as parents, they can have access to citizenship—are written off.

Getting the tone and the details right is not easy, but leaders from the new swing states are at the forefront of trying to do so. They include Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the first Senate leader from west of Texas, who has to convince labor that immigrants don't take away union jobs or put undue downward pressure on wages, while at the same time reassuring Latinos that he is in their corner; Senator McCain, whose '08 presidential campaign is struggling in part because of opposition within his own party to his pro-reform stance, and Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, whose Mexican heritage and office both allows—and requires—that he be tough on border security.

After years of watching Bush's GOP focus on Southwestern Latinos, the Democrats are following suit. They changed the presidential nomination process to include an early caucus in Nevada. Richardson, a Spanish speaker whose mother was born in Mexico, is a presidential candidate. At the least, he has a chance to be a player in the Democratic race if he wins Nevada. The party made a shrewd decision choosing Denver for the site of its 2008 convention. All eight Democratic presidential contenders were scheduled to appear in Orlando, Fla., in June at the annual meeting of Latino elected officials, an important stop on the new campaign trail.

Inexplicably, not a single GOP contender was planning to attend. Though the group tilts to the Democrats, Martinez says, he has been welcomed there, and so would the candidates. The GOP contenders, he says, were afraid to anger the Southern-based, "send them home and build a fence" forces in the party. (The leading contenders cited scheduling conflicts as the reason for not attending.) Despite the absence of a major presence in Orlando, the GOP has made progress repairing the damage of 2006, Martinez insists. "We've kind of evened things back up."

The numbers in the new swing states will keep changing, though, especially if Eduardo Sotelo has anything to do with it. For the last year or more, he has been encouraging listeners who have green cards to apply for full citizenship, a process that can take about 18 months. At any one time, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, there are about half a million Hispanic applicants awaiting action. And most of those are future Democrats. According to recent polls, foreign-born Latino voters are more than three times as likely to identify with the Democratic Party than with the GOP. And while substantial minorities support tough border-control measures, Hispanics overwhelmingly favor giving a clear path to citizenship to illegal immigrants.

As for Sotelo, he has a personal reform agenda: to become a citizen, too. He made it across the border in 1986 and headed for California. He graduated from high school in Santa Ana, and then found a job as a DJ—until he came within a day of being deported for lacking the papers to be in the country in the first place. He finally got a work permit and began his rise in radio. "I have been on both sides of the immigration divide," he said in a speech at a rally near the Capitol in June, "first as an undocumented worker ... now as a proud permanent resident applying for citizenship." He told his listeners that he will chronicle his progress in his radio show. If you live in the Southwest, you're sure to hear about the results.