Wooing Latinos in Texas

At first glance it looked like a good night for Barack Obama here at Gilley's, the legendary Dallas honky-tonk. Hundreds of supporters crowded the room, sipping longneck bottles of Shiner bock and milling around the mechanical bull made famous by John Travolta in "Urban Cowboy" (back when the bar was located in the Houston area). TV screens overhead beamed in the news that Obama was sweeping the so-called Potomac Primary and building momentum for the delegate-rich Texas primary slated for March 4. Throughout the room folks were pledging to volunteer to help usher first-time voters to the polls. What made the night all the more promising for the Obama field team on the ground in the Lone Star state was that the campaign, which had only recently begun setting up shop in Texas, hadn't even organized this gathering. "What's crazy and wonderful, astonishing even, is that [the locals] organized themselves before we even got here," said Adora Andy, an Obama staffer who flew in from San Antonio for the Dallas event. "We're just backup."

But a closer look at the crowd indicated the challenge ahead for Obama and his allies. This audience of some 600 was overwhelmingly African-American and Caucasian; there were only a handful of Hispanics on hand. No line of volunteers formed in front of the "Latino Outreach" placard, which briefly fell to the floor, despite the plea for Spanish-speakers posted on the online invitation to the event.

A third to a half of the voters casting ballots in Texas's Democratic primary are expected to be Latino. And Hillary Clinton, Obama's chief rival for the nomination, has outpolled Obama two-to-one among Hispanic voters nationwide. Obama saw an uptick in his appeal to Latinos in Tuesday's voting in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, but he's got much ground to cover before March 4 if he hopes to best Clinton for the Latino vote and the lion's share of Texas's 228-delegate prize.

Clinton, after all, got her start in politics in 1972 going door to door in Texas border towns registering Hispanic voters for George McGovern's campaign. She strengthened her ties to the Rio Grande Valley region when Bill became governor of the neighboring state of Arkansas, when he ran for president, and when her old friends in this area hosted $1,000-a-plate fund-raisers for her Senate campaign. Developer Alonzo Cantu, a "Hillraiser" who bundled more than $100,000 in donations for Hillary's presidential bid, tapped everyone from wealthy longtime political patrons to trailer park retirees. Cantu also raised money for John Edwards before he dropped out of the race. What about Obama? Haven't seen him on the border, Cantu griped last year. "Still haven't," he said this week.

Clinton is leaving nothing to chance. On Tuesday she met in El Paso with 12,000 fans who were doing their best to ignore what was going on in the Potomac Primary. "There's a great saying in Texas. You've heard it: all hat and no cattle. After seven years of George Bush we need a lot less hat and a lot more cattle," Clinton told the crowd, in a barely veiled swipe at her opponent. "Texas needs a president who actually understands what it's going to take to turn the economy around, to get us universal health care, to save hard-working Americans' homes from foreclosure."

She stumped on Wednesday in McAllen, a booming border town surrounded by a county that is 90 percent Hispanic. Portraits of her husband hang in some restaurants. Local officials, more than 100 strong, joined her onstage to show their support. When U.S. Representative Ruben Hinojosa introduced Senator Clinton to the crowd, he said simply that she "has earned our love and respect." Back in Washington later that day, he added, "She has been a champion of our community for over 30 years. She did not discover McAllen on the map when it came time to run for president." Clinton can expect "overwhelming" support from South Texas Hispanics, Hinojosa predicts. "She has friends here, and she knows the issues we care about."

And this week she launched a TV ad aimed at Spanish-speaking Texans that calls Hillary "nuestra amiga." (our friend).

Josh Earnest, Obama's Texas spokesman, says the Clintons' deep roots in Texas will be a factor in the upcoming race. But the more people get to know Obama, he argues, the more they like him. "His chances in Texas depend on our ability to introduce Senator Obama and his background to black, white and Hispanic voters. Texans are not used to having such a big say in the presidential race. This year they clearly will." The Hispanic vote in Texas is very important, he says, and "we intend to spend a lot of time and resources competing for it."

Rene Martinez, a 61-year-old Dallas school administrator sporting a cream-colored cowboy hat, was one of the few Hispanic supporters at the Obama gathering in Dallas. His son Alexis, 26, originally turned him on to Obama, and his wife Beatrice pronounced that she was fed up with Bill and Hillary's "polarizing" campaign tactics. "We should be the old-guard Chicanos who go with Clinton, and we're not. The young people have really energized me, and they are mobilizing for Obama," Rene says.

Alexis, a 26-year-old commercial real estate broker, said he's been for Obama since the Illinois senator first appeared on the national political scene. "He's much more warm and open. He has so much more appeal to the younger generation, to my generation, because of the passion he puts forth. It's a changing of the guard." But his father put the challenge ahead succinctly: "Now the question is how do we capture that vote? How do we energize that young crowd to go into the barrios of Dallas?"

That effort has begun in earnest. The campaign has launched a Spanish-language radio advertisement, now running in eight Texas markets, that hypes Obama's decision to turn down a high-paying Wall Street job after college to work on the south side of Chicago among those left behind after plant closings. And the campaign has hired Adrian Saenz, a Hispanic Texan on leave from his job as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, to serve as its state director.

The task ahead is to energize the Latino vote—without alienating Obama's base among African-Americans. Some worry that interethnic tensions stand in the way. Others find such talk disturbing. "Our shared experiences as minorities brings us together," said U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents San Antonio in the House and who endorsed Obama on Monday. "We know what it's like to feel the sting of discrimination. The Latino understands that the day that you start citing race or ethnicity or gender for your vote is the day you give a basis for all those who once discriminated against us. It's not going to happen. Not in our community."

Gonzalez is a superdelegate, one of the Democratic Party leaders who could end up deciding the party's nomination if neither candidate wins a majority of the delegates pledged in the popular vote. He acknowledges that the Clintons have built a reservoir of good will among Hispanics in Texas. "They've been on the political scene for years," he says. But Gonzalez believes Obama is better positioned to pull in the votes of independents, and he likes the fact that his candidate is inspiring legions of voters to go to the polls for the first time. "I've got two great quarterbacks. One can win the game for me by three points, one by a touchdown. I'm very pragmatic, so I'm going for the one who can win by a touchdown."