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Bush Courts Hispanic Support

June 29, 1999

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ Texas Gov. George W. Bush made a direct appeal for Hispanic support today, visiting a Mexican-themed fair and slipping almost immediately into Spanish as he addressed a crowd of curious onlookers.

``Thank you for having me,″ Bush told a racially mixed crowd of several dozen, speaking in English. In Spanish, he said, ``It’s a great honor to be here with all of you.″

Bush’s California trip, his first since announcing he would seek the Republican presidential nomination, is dominated by seven fund-raising stops over three days. His campaign said he will net $4.2 million today.

In his brief remarks at the fair, Bush addressed the importance of education, telling the crowd, ``If you can’t read, you can’t realize the American dream.″

Several members of his audience said they knew little about Bush but were drawn to learn more.

``I’m interested in what he’s got to say,″ said Deanna Tamayo, who got up early to see Bush. ``I know he’s trying to reach out to the Hispanic community which is a plus for me and my children.″

Jose Hernandez, 33, said he was unimpressed by Bush’s remarks, which lasted less than five minutes. Hernandez, who attended the fair with his wife and six children, said Hispanic voters appreciate being addressed in Spanish.

``But he’s going to have to do a lot more than that,″ Hernandez said. ″ Right now I didn’t see much but hopefully we will see more, hopefully he will have more to say when he comes back.″

Hispanics make up 15 percent of the electorate in California, and they have increasingly voted Democratic. Battles over illegal immigration, affirmative action and bilingual education that raged through most of the 1990s under then-Gov. Pete Wilson have left deep reservations among Hispanics toward Republicans.

It’s a fact that’s not lost on Bush or his Republican presidential rivals. The Texas governor on Monday appointed Margita Thompson, who is Hispanic and speaks Spanish, to his California effort.

``There needs to be a message that speaks to values that the Hispanic community can understand,″ Bush said as he arrived here Monday night. ``I’ve done a good job in Texas of reaching out to the Hispanic community, I intend to do so in California as well.″

Hispanics constitute America’s fastest growing electorate group. Nationally, 5 percent of the voting public is Hispanic.

In a speech last week in Detroit, Bush told his predominantly Hispanic audience: ``The message has got to be, ’The American dream has got to stand for you as well.‴

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, another Republican presidential hopeful, gave a brief Spanish pitch to adult students in Los Angeles in March, but it backfired when his audience began to pepper him with questions in Spanish, which he didn’t understand.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona has long courted Hispanic voters and captured more than 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in his last two elections. ``Their support is my honor,″ McCain said at a GOP convention here in February.

On the Democratic side, the front-runner, Vice President Al Gore, told a mostly Hispanic audience in Los Angeles last week that the Republicans were trying to divide Californians with ``demagogic tactics designed to turn one group against each other.″

It was an apparent reference to the state’s Proposition 187, the successful ballot measure five years ago that sought to bar illegal immigrants from receiving most forms of state aid.

In the past two presidential elections, the Hispanic vote nationally went overwhelmingly for the Democrat, Bill Clinton. He got 61 percent of the vote in 1992 and 72 percent in 1996, according to Voter News Service exit polls.

Last year, Bush won the Texas gubernatorial race last year with 49 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to a VNS exit poll. Another exit poll, by the William Velasquez Institute of San Antonio for the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, a Hispanic interest group, put the figure at 39 percent.

The Texas governor hopes to parlay this support into a broad victory in the primaries. States with heavy Hispanic populations include California, Texas, New York and Florida.

``That’s a 900-pound electoral gorilla,″ said Leslie Goodman, a Republican consultant volunteering for Bush’s campaign.

The four states combined have 144 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

Update hourly