WASHINGTON (AFP) — Some nine million US Hispanics are eligible to vote in the November 4 presidential election and both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are pulling out all the stops to gain their support.
Both campaigns have tried to forge a closer relationship with the country's largest minority group, especially in the key swing states of Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico -- places were the outcome could be determined.
Nationally, Latino support for the Republicans reached some 44 percent when President George W. Bush ran for re-election in 2004, when some 7.6 million Hispanics were eligible to vote.
Today only 23 percent of Hispanics support McCain, while two-thirds support Obama, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center study.
Party loyalty in the swing states however is not always clear.
"There are many Latino voters in these states," Jorge Mursulli, director of the advocacy group Democracia USA, told AFP. "What's more, one cannot firmly place these states in either the Republican or Democratic column."
Mursulli, who leads one of the largest voter registration drives in the country, said the Hispanic population has grown significantly over the past years in those four states.
In Florida, where both campaigns are spending heavily, polls show that Hispanic voters "will be very divided," Mursulli said.
Attitudes towards Cuba are expected to swing some voters.
Jorge Mas, the head of the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) wrote a recent Washington Post opinion piece in which he described current US policy towards Cuba as "at best static and at worst counterproductive."
Obama's "forward-looking and proactive approach toward empowering the Cuban people is more in line" with proposals that he outlined "than John McCain's vow to continue the Bush administration's policy."
But like other voters, Hispanics are primarily concerned about the country's troubled economy, health care and education.
"That does not mean that people are no longer concerned about the war in Iraq," Mursulli said. "The issue of the war remains very high on the list of Latino priorities."
Immigration, however, "is the issue that sets Hispanics apart from the rest of the population," Mursulli said.
Immigration was debated during the primaries, but is so controversial it has been largely ignored by both candidates during the general election campaign.
Proposals to introduce immigration reform, both times supported by McCain, were defeated in the US Congress in 2006 and 2007 in the face of opposition from conservative Republicans.
Since the reform proposal failed, polls show Hispanics increasingly supporting the Democrats. The move coincides with an increase in high-profile roundups of undocumented workers, with thousands arrested by federal authorities since December 2006.
Obama has even recorded three ads in Spanish, the first presidential candidate to do so, said a top Obama aide, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, on Monday.
The 30-second long spots are being broadcast in the four swing states as well as the battleground state of Virginia.
"I ask your vote not just for me and for the Democrats, but to keep alive this (American) dream for you and your children," Obama says in one spot.
Both candidates have also promised closer ties with Latin America -- a region largely forgotten by the Bush administration -- but may be hamstrung by the global financial crisis, experts said.
Latin America briefly surfaced in the October 15 debate, in which the McCain chastised Obama for not having traveled south of the border, and for opposing the free trade agreement with Colombia.
Obama, along with other Democrats in the US Congress, opposed the FTA with Colombia because they said they wanted more protections and rights for Colombian workers in the agreement.
Obama also has said that he wants to renegotiate portions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- signed in 1993, during the Democratic presidency of Bill Clinton -- because he wants Mexico to adhere to higher labor and environmental standards.
The next president "should avoid expectations that cannot be fulfilled" concerning closer US interest in Latin America, said Peter DeShazo, who heads the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank.
Peter Hakim, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank, believes that reviving the sputtering US economy is essential for better ties south of the border. "Getting our economy back in order is terribly important for Latin America," he said.
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