ORLANDO, FLA. — Like eager but awkward suitors, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are working hard and sometimes fumbling in their efforts to court Hispanic voters who could swing November's presidential election.
For Obama and McCain, the problem is less one of language than of trying to understand a group whose own diversity can make it a mystery to others. It's not a simple matter of saying, "Take me to your leaders."
But that, in essence, is the ground game the presidential candidates and their campaigns have been playing in pitching to voters who could form decisive constituencies in critical battleground states.
"They just come to me and say, 'Who are the bosses of the Latin community?' " said Patrick Manteiga, who runs a family-owned newspaper for Hispanics in Tampa's historic Cuban neighborhood of Ybor City. "That's like coming and asking, 'Who are the bosses of white America, of the soccer moms?' "
Both candidates are pressing their case in three speeches in as many weeks to Hispanic umbrella groups and working in other ways to make their outreach more sophisticated. Republicans have opened an office in Orlando, where most of the state's Puerto Ricans live, and Obama opens one this week in Ybor City.
Obama on Sunday proposed up to a 50-percent tax credit for small businesses providing health insurance to their employees, a program he hopes has special appeal to Hispanics and other minority groups struggling for a toehold in the U.S. economy.
"We know that small businesses are the engines of economic prosperity in our communities, especially in Latino communities," Obama said in an address to several thousand Hispanics attending the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza. "Make no mistake about it: The Latino community holds this election in your hands," Obama said to cheers.
McCain will address La Raza today, The Washington Post reported.
Both candidates have their work cut out for them in appealing to a large and growing segment of the population that has leaned Democratic but has not always been motivated to vote. A recent AP-Yahoo News poll found Obama leading McCain 47 percent to 22 percent among Hispanic voters, with 26 percent undecided.
McCain is respected by many Hispanics for refusing to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment over the years. Yet he is viewed in some Latin quarters as a sequel to the unpopular President Bush, a problem he has with voters at large, too.
Obama's vitality and soaring oratory appeal to Hispanics just as they do to others. Whoops of approval were heard throughout his speech last week to the League of United Latin American Citizens' convention.
Yet Obama emerged from Democratic primaries a distant second to rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton among most Hispanic groups. Like voters at large, Latino voters question the one-term senator's experience. And there are tensions between blacks and Hispanics.
Hispanic voters are hardly monolithic. Some in the West have roots going back more than two centuries, while others were sworn in as citizens last week.
During the last presidential election, Hispanics in key swing states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida represented 8 percent to more than 30 percent of voters, according to exit polls, and their numbers are expected to grow this year.
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