EL PASO, Texas -- In 1598, Spanish explorers stumbled upon this desert valley, where the currents of the Rio Grande broke through the spine of the Rockies. They named it "El Paso del Norte," the northern pass.
Four hundred years later, a political pathfinder named George W. Bush is seeking a breakthrough of his own here.
Bush's re-election as Texas governor next month is a foregone conclusion. But Bush, the front- runner for the Republican Party's 2000 presidential nomination, would like to convey a message beyond "blowout" on election night.
"I want it to be known that a conservative candidate can carry the Hispanic vote," he says. To drive that point home, Bush is going all-out to win El Paso, the state's fourth largest city, which has never backed a Republican in a major statewide race.
A major portion of his $20 million campaign -- including one-fourth of his total TV and radio budget -- is being aimed at the state's 1.5 million Latino voters. That has prompted Democrats to accuse Bush of attempting to buy the Hispanic vote.
In fact, since Hispanics make up only 12 percent of the Texas electorate, Bush is spending millions to boost his share of the total vote by about 2 percentage points -- in a race he's winning by 46 points, according to the latest statewide poll.
But his aggressive pitch for Hispanic support carries implications that extend well beyond next month's election. At the most basic level, Bush is attempting to reverse his party's dismal standing among the nation's 30 million Latinos, who will soon surpass African-Americans as the country's largest minority group.
Moreover, a big Hispanic vote could define him as a new, open-minded Republican, just as the presidential race is getting under way. That could help, if he becomes the nominee, to erase perhaps the biggest handicap the GOP faces nationally in appealing to suburban women and other swing voters: the party's reputation for intolerance. Outreach to Hispanics is "absolutely" key, Bush says, to his effort to position himself as a New Republican (though he doesn't care for that label).
"My reaching out to the Hispanic community," he says, "is going to be helpful in sending a message: 'Hey, this guy's not so bad. He may be conservative on abortion, but he's not such a bad guy, because he cares about people.' "
"It's not so much softening the image," he adds. "It's creating a positive image." Most Republicans regard Bush as more conservative than his father, former President George Bush, but the 52-year-old governor is managing to fashion a middle-of-the road reputation among Texas Hispanics.
El Paso's congressman, Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat, says Bush has "reached out very effectively to our constituency. On issues like bilingual education and immigration, he is very moderate."
Bush also wins points with Mexican-Americans for campaigning in Spanish, though the governor readily admits his command of the language is only so-so.
His apparent ability to connect with Hispanic voters sets Bush apart from other prominent Republicans, including such potential presidential candidates as California Gov. Pete Wilson and Patrick J. Buchanan.
Bush has pointedly refused to sign on to his party's immigrant-bashing agenda. He opposed Wilson over Proposition 187, which withdrew health and public education benefits from illegal immigrants and their children in California.
He's a strong supporter of Mexico, and he says his warm relations with that country's leaders have helped him with Hispanic voters. "I've talked to a lot of friends who'll go down to Mexico and they'll come back and say, 'God, Bush, you're really popular in Mexico City,' " he says.
Bush gives qualified support to bilingual education, which Wilson and Republican conservatives in Congress have attempted to outlaw. Bilingual education is fine, Bush says, as long as students can pass the state tests he is promoting.
Bush is a vocal opponent of conservative Republican efforts to make English the official language, calling that "a powerful negative message" that repels Hispanic voters.
Nationwide, seven states -- with two-thirds of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency -- have significant Hispanic populations. In addition to Texas, they are California, Florida, New York, Illinois, Arizona and Colorado.
Success in Texas would not necessarily translate into Hispanic support in those other states, says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.
"The Latino voter in Texas is very different from the Latino voter in California or Florida or New York," Vargas says.
Bush, who says he'll decide next year whether to run for president in 2000, is clearly positioning himself to try.
"You can't reinvent yourself in one campaign," he cautions. "If you're an incumbent, the strategy of the campaign for the Hispanic vote must be an extended campaign. You can't show up on Election Day and say, 'Hey, I care.' "
It's essential to "ask for the vote," he adds, which is why he is spending millions on TV and radio ads, in English and Spanish, designed specifically for Hispanics. Many feature a popular San Antonio singer, Emilio Navaira, who is described as the Garth Brooks of Tejano music.
Bush's outgunned Democratic opponent, Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, responds that the governor is trying to win Latino votes "on a song and a dance." Mauro, an effective Hispanic vote-getter in past elections, predicts that, like other Republicans before him, Bush will fall short of his Election Day goal of 40 percent of the Latino vote.
But a recent Mason-Dixon poll showed Bush with 53 percent of the Hispanic vote statewide. That exceeds the high-water mark for a Republican in a major election (Ronald Reagan got 44 percent in his 1984 re-election landslide).
"The Hispanic community is a conservative community," Bush says. "It shares conservative values like family. The Catholic Church has got a huge influence. Education is a huge issue with Hispanic parents."
He is paying particular attention to El Paso, a lonely, Mexican-border outpost of the Lone Star State that is closer to Los Angeles than to East Texas. Long ignored by state politicians (it isn't even in the same time zone as the rest of Texas), this metropolis of 800,000, which is three-quarters Hispanic, has a legendary reputation for voter apathy.
"Bush is reaching out," says Mayor Carlos Ramirez, a Democrat who has broken with his party to support the Republican governor. "He is saying, 'Yes, you count. Yes, you are important.' That sort of a message speaks volumes to regular people here."
Bush has made 13 visits to El Paso since taking office. He has worked closely with local officials on trade, economic development and infrastructure problems. His wife, Laura, whose family has roots in the area, has also campaigned here often. Bush even made sure that the only debate of the campaign took place here last weekend.
Bush says it was "a defining moment" when Al Gore came to El Paso in July to campaign for Mauro. He sees that as evidence that his Latino outreach has put him in a position to carry this Democratic stronghold.
"I mean, you had the vice president of the United States -- one of 13 different events that the president, the first lady and the vice president have done for my opponent -- and they drag him out here to El Paso," he says, the satisfaction evident in his voice.
Pub Date: 10/21/98