Can Texas Latinos Save Hillary?

This was one fired-up crowd. At a rally for Sen. Hillary Clinton at St. Mary's University in San Antonio last Wednesday, thousands of people erupted with euphoria. They cheered, they chanted, they stomped their feet. Many a time, I've seen Clinton grab hold of such fervor and wrestle it into submission, beat it down with so many 10-point plans and monotonous "I believes" that the multitudes finally collapse into a stupor. But not these rapturous souls. Clinton mentioned her fondness for hot peppers (preferably jalapeños, which she thinks have medicinal properties), and they roared. She vowed to pull the troops out of Iraq, and they roared. Even when she got to the part about her "35 years of experience" and her many, many policy proposals, they roared. More than once, audience members shrieked, "We love you, Hillary!"

It was a good sign for Clinton. With her campaign flagging and Sen. Barack Obama surging, she's making her last stand in the Texas and Ohio contests on March 4. Before the polls even closed in the Potomac primary last Tuesday, she was heading to the Lone Star State, where she campaigned in El Paso, McAllen and Robstown before reaching San Antonio. "Meet me in Texas," she said, challenging Obama. "We're ready."

Her roots in the state, as she never fails to remind voters, reach far back. One of her national co-chairs, Raul Yzaguirre, remembers meeting Clinton in 1972, when she went to south Texas to register Hispanic voters for George McGovern. "It was a bit of a culture clash," he says, recalling the blond, bespectacled young woman who asked him how to make tamales. When her husband was president, she visited repeatedly, and over the years she's become steeped in Tejano culture.

The border area holds the most promise for her, with its rich reservoir of Latino voters—a group that's been a base of support. Hidalgo County, home to McAllen, is 90 percent Mexican-American and a place where the old-timers used to place two photos on the mantel: one of the pope and one of JFK. "We're the bluest part of a Red State," says Jerry Polinard of the University of Texas-Pan American. "When we talk about building a fence down here, we talk about building one on the north to keep the Republicans out." But under the state's inscrutable delegate-allocation system, this heavily Hispanic area will have comparatively fewer delegates to award. So Clinton will have to compete for voters all over: liberals in Austin, old-line Democrats in the middle, blacks in Houston and Dallas, and rural traditionalists east and west.

Last week, though, her attention was focused on Hispanics. With good reason: many of them adore her. They equate the Clintons with good economic times, the fight for universal health care and cabinet appointments for Tejanos. At the rally in Robstown, one placard read: HILLARY FIRST LATINA PRESIDENT. "Latinos are unusually brand-loyal," says Henry Cisneros, a Clinton backer who was the mayor of San Antonio and a cabinet member in her husband's administration. "It's really an incredible bonding, almost like a family." Obama, on the other hand, is largely unknown. Paul Elizondo, a county commissioner in San Antonio who's endorsed Clinton, breaks it down in Spanglish: "Down here, con la gente [with the people] … Obama is not recognized through the rank-and-file raza," he says. "We have a saying here: 'El no trae nada.' He's never done anything for anybody here."

Of course, not all Hispanics love Clinton. In San Antonio, I paid a visit to Lionel Sosa and his wife, Kathy. Sosa is a godfather of Latino marketing, and the couple have crafted countless Hispanic ad campaigns, including those for George W. Bush. Among some Latinos, "there's a sense Hillary will tell you what you need to hear," Sosa told me over coffee at the Watermark Hotel. "She has all those robotic, rehearsed gestures, the wide eyes and smile." A supporter of Sen. John McCain's, he's already itching to cut one ad in particular. He opened his Mac and pulled up recent footage of McCain in Livonia, Mich., where the senator fired back at a heckler who criticized his immigration stance. "Have [Clinton and Obama] stood up for the Latino?" asks Sosa. "Neither of them has. McCain has, front and center."

From there, I went to visit Rosalinda Huerta. The day before, Clinton had stopped by her tidy bungalow in the middle-class Mexican-American area of Woodlawn as part of a neighborhood canvass and photo op. I wanted to see if Clinton had won Huerta's vote. Sweet yet steely, Huerta, 77, had no shortage of opinions. On TV, she said, Clinton struck her as cool and rigid and much too preoccupied with touting her accomplishments. Huerta was also thoroughly turned off by Bill Clinton's attacks on Obama in South Carolina. "I was very disappointed," she said. "It was like he was taking over—no, no, no." But after seeing Hillary in person, Huerta's view softened: "She looked so affectionate. I didn't know she was like that." Though Huerta said she had been leaning toward Obama before, Hillary "pulled it even again." Perhaps on Clinton's next tour through Texas, she'll manage to seal the deal.