LAS VEGAS, N.M. - Four years ago, Tony E. Marquez Jr. proudly backed George W. Bush for president. Today, he bitterly regrets his vote.
Bush "has not been a good president for Hispanics," said Marquez, 37, an administrator with the New Mexico prison system. This year, for the first time, the registered Republican is voting for the Democratic ticket.
In the 2000 election, Latinos cast pivotal ballots, and they may again in November. Polls show Bush struggling to hold off Sen. John Kerry in four states where Hispanics, the nation's largest minority group, make up a significant slice of the electorate.
Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada - with a combined 47 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election - are the most fiercely contested Hispanic battlegrounds this year. All are considered tossups.
In Bush's only other re-election race, for Texas governor in 1998, he aggressively courted Mexican-Americans and got almost half their votes.
That unusually strong showing for a Republican helped build his "compassionate conservative" image and generate the strongest Hispanic support for a Republican presidential candidate in 16 years.
However as Bush prepares to be renominated at a convention that will boast a record number of Hispanic delegates, polls show his standing with Hispanic voters has slipped. Among their concerns: health care, education, jobs and, increasingly, the war in Iraq.
Republican activist K.B. Forbes says the war has emerged as "the No. 1 issue" among Hispanics, fed in part by sensational coverage on Spanish-language television of violence in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses.
"They don't have a Michael Moore in the Hispanic community, but they have the same images," said Forbes, a Nevadan who runs a nonprofit organization aimed at lower health care costs for Latinos. "I was speaking to a Hispanic mother a week ago, and she knew that over 900 U.S. soldiers, boys, had been killed and she said Bush, because he has two daughters, never sacrificed anything from his family, and she was very angry about that."
This year, the biggest surge in anti-war sentiment has been among minority voters, according to a poll released last week by the Associated Press. It found that 80 percent of non-whites think the Bush administration made a mistake in going to war, a jump of 40 points since December, according to the survey, which did not break out figures for individual ethnic or racial groups.
Still, Bush appears to be holding most of his Latino support, polls show, despite misgivings about the U.S. military presence in Iraq, in which Hispanics are well-represented.
"People aren't crazy about the war, but they're pro-military," said Matt Martinez, former mayor of Las Vegas, a rural New Mexico foothill town that welcomed its National Guard unit home from Iraq on the same day that Kerry and running mate John Edwards rolled through on their campaign train.
However, some Bush voters like Marquez, who serves on the town council, have had enough. Companies such as Halliburton have profited from the war and "over 900 soldiers have been killed," while the local economy here continues to stagnate, he says. "That turns me off the most."
The 2004 campaign is the most intense and expensive effort yet to reach the nation's vast and rapidly growing Hispanic population, estimated at 40 million.
However, the real targets are Hispanic swing voters - recent immigrants - who are a small part of the 7.4 million Latinos likely to turn out this year, according to the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
Bush's latest Spanish-language TV ads pay glossy tribute to these newcomers' roots, exhibiting the flags of countries and territories such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua before dissolving into the Stars and Stripes.
Playing on connections
In his effort to turn the presidential campaign into a personality contest, Bush is playing on the connections he established with Latinos in 2000. The ad's tagline: "President Bush. We know each other."
Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster in Coral Gables, Fla., said Bush's ads are a virtual copy of "one of the most effective political commercials made in Spanish in the United States" - by Bush's brother, Jeb, the Florida governor, in his successful 2002 re-election campaign.
"It gives a clear signal that their strategy for the Hispanic community is what I call the basic 'I love you' message. It is devoid of issues," Bendixen said. "It is a very personal kind of emotional connection message that has been the guiding light of the Republican Party in its attempt to conquer the Hispanic vote through the charisma of the Bush family."
Democratic media consultant Armando Gutierrez of Albuquerque warns that Democratic attacks on Bush are likely to backfire with Hispanic swing voters who feel they "know George Bush's personality [and] don't particularly dislike him personally."
Another Bush advantage, which the president exhibits in campaign commercials and interviews with Hispanic media outlets, is his ability to speak Spanish.
"You know, he's not bad," admitted Nevada Democratic Chairwoman Adriana Martinez, the first Hispanic to hold that post.
Kerry, meantime, lacks a personal history with Latino voters and their special issues, such as immigration, a vulnerability that Bush is attempting to exploit.
However, Kerry is trying to relate. When he visited New Mexico, the most Hispanic-populated state in the country, the Catholic candidate made sure to have his picture taken after attending Mass at San Felipe de Neri Catholic Church in Albuquerque.
Though he doesn't speak Spanish, he manages to utter a few lines or phrases before Hispanic audiences.
"Viva, Las Vegas!" the senator shouted from the rear of his train at a recent campaign stop here, before introducing his best asset in his outreach to Hispanics: his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, whose parents were Portuguese and who is fluent in Spanish.
"Una Latina!" shouted Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, whose mother is Mexican, highlighting Heinz Kerry's heritage for the largely Hispanic crowd.
Kerry's prospects also may be aided by special circumstances in the Latino battleground states.
In Florida, his campaign is hoping to capitalize on a surge in Puerto Rican immigrants, a group that usually tilts toward Democrats, and on opposition among some Cuban-Americans to Bush's tough new policy on travel to Cuba.
(A wild card is the possible presence on the November ballot of former Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, who was dispatched by the White House to compete in this month's Senate primary, leaving the Cabinet without a Hispanic member for the first time since 1988.)
In Arizona, a state that Al Gore did not contest in 2000, Democrats say a ballot measure promoted by opponents of illegal immigration will drive up Hispanic turnout.
In Nevada, an initiative to raise the minimum wage is expected to draw union members, many of them Hispanic, who might otherwise stay home. And in New Mexico, Richardson's election two years ago replaced a Republican with a popular Democrat who is also the nation's highest-ranking Hispanic official.
But Kerry's biggest advantage may be the voter registration drives and door-to-door canvassing begun months ago by the Democratic Party and allied groups, such as America Coming Together, which is mounting what it says is a $75 million-plus national turnout effort.
A New Mexico Republican strategist, who predicted Bush would lose that state if the election were today, called the Democratic ground campaign the best he has seen in 30 years.
'The greatest increases'
In fast-growing Clark County, Nev., the Democrats have already signed up 10,000 more new voters than Republicans have in a state Bush won by just more than 21,000 votes. Larry Lomax, the county registrar of voters, said, "There's no question the Latino parts of town are where we're seeing the greatest increases."
Nationally, Bush's goal is to add 5 percent to the 35 percent share of the Hispanic vote he got last time, as measured by network exit polling.
"If they get an extra 5 percent, they win the election," said Richardson, who predicts that the Latino vote will decide the presidential race.
Bush may have difficulty gaining a much larger share of the Hispanic vote, yet even Democratic strategists don't expect him to fall too far below his 2000 vote.
But with the possibility of another close finish in November, if Kerry "can even shave off 2 or 3 percent" of Bush's Latino vote, it would be enough to tip states the president won last time, such as Nevada and Arizona, to Kerry, said Luis Navarro, former national political director of Kerry's campaign and now ACT's western coordinator.