Obama Boosts Outreach to Hispanic Caucus
Just two days after effectively securing the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill) has already begun working to shore up one of the most glaring holes in his campaign so far -- his lack of support from Hispanic voters. And the presumptive nominee is starting his push on Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday, Obama put in a brief call to Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The two men were scheduled to have a more detailed conversation Thursday afternoon, and Baca, who like most of his Hispanic congressional colleagues had supported Clinton during the primaries, said he was ready to help.
"It's going to be my responsibility, along with many other members, to convince the Hispanic community that he represents their interests," Baca told Capitol Briefing.
It may be a tall order. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-Ill.) beat Obama among Hispanic voters by wide margins in nearly every state, capping it off with a 36-point victory in Puerto Rico this past weekend.
Baca said Obama failed to gain much Hispanic support during the primaries because "he didn't reach out." One result was that only a few members of the CHC backed his campaign. But Obama is reaching out now; not only has the senator himself called Baca, but Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Federico Pena, the former Clinton cabinet official, have also called this week seeking to get Baca on board.
So, even if all the Hispanic members (the Democratic ones, anyway) announce their support for Obama, what can the nominee do to earn the backing of Latino voters? Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) joked that Obama needed to approach the task the way an addict in a 12-step program does: "First, accept there is a problem."
"Let's not make the mistake that certainly John Kerry made in 2004, where he basically suspended his outreach to the Latino community on the idea that he was going to win them anyway," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez and other Hispanic members specifically referenced Obama's campaign style, often marked by blockbuster events in huge venues, as an ineffective one in the Latino community.
"There needs to be a lot more retail politics, which allows the candidate to talk about specific policies that aren't easily transmitted to a 35,000-person audience," Gutierrez said.
Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), a Clinton supporter in the primaries, agreed. "It's about grassroots campaigning the old-fashioned way. It's not so much the stadium presentations," she said.
Solis said that Clinton got more than 70 percent of the vote in her district during the California primary, at least partly because her constituents simply "don't know Obama that well."
"I've always seen it not as anti-Obama but pro-Clinton and residue of goodwill toward Bill [Clinton]," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who backed Obama in the primaries after initially supporting John Edwards.
Grijalva said he was concerned about "slippage" to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by some Hispanic voters who sided with Clinton's in the Democratic primaries, especially since there was some initial enthusiasm for McCain in the Hispanic community "based on his early efforts on immigration. But he's basically repudiated those efforts as the campaign has gone on."
Baca made a similar point, arguing that McCain "flip-flopped on the issue." And Solis said that "Latino Republican surrogates" had done a good job reminding Hispanic voters about McCain's work on immigration without mentioning his evolution on the issue. Obama's campaign needs to hit McCain on immigration within the Hispanic community while also making specific pledges of his own to get something done quickly, she said.
"In the first 100 days [of an Obama presidency] there's got to be a comprehensive immigration reform plan in place," Solis said.
While immigration and the economy are major topics, Hispanic lawmakers said that domestic issues weren't the only ones of concern to their constituents. "Opposition to the [Iraq] was in the Latino community is huge," Grijalva said.
Overall, Obama has a significant amount of work to do to win support from Latinos who have been wary of his candidacy so far, but Hispanic members of Congress are cautiously optimistic that he can pull it off.
"I don't want to say it's all rosy, but we're going to work on it," Grijalva said.
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