Bush courts Hispanic vote in California campaign visit

At same time, Texan must retain GOP core

June 30, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DEL MAR, Calif. -- Joe Canales threw his burly arms around Gov. George W. Bush in a tight abrazo as the Republican presidential candidate made his way through the crowd at a Southern California county fair here yesterday.

Canales, a 43-year-old father of nine, is a registered Democrat. But he will embrace Bush's candidacy if the Texas governor becomes the Republican nominee next year.

"I know he's going after the Hispanic vote, and I think he's going to get it," says Canales, who owns a security company in Vista, Calif. "He speaks better Spanish than I do. How many presidents speak Spanish?"

Hispanic outreach is a top priority for Bush, who carried half the Latino vote in his re-election victory last fall in Texas. It could be particularly important in the general presidential election in California next year, when racial and ethnic minorities will make up a majority of the state's population for the first time.

But first, Bush must navigate the early and delegate-rich Republican primary here, in which conservative whites will play a disproportionately large role. California has advanced its primary by three months, to March 7, the same day that Maryland and at least a dozen other states will vote.

So as he seeks to broaden his party's appeal to minorities, Bush is also trying not to alienate his party's base. That delicate balancing act was on display at the Del Mar Fair, along with the prize-winning livestock, as Bush began a three-day swing through the Golden State, his first of the 2000 campaign.

In a brief question-and-answer session, Bush said he supports the "spirit" of Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot measure that ended affirmative action in California -- despite the overwhelming opposition of Hispanic and African-American voters.

"I support the spirit of no quotas, no preferences," Bush said. That comment was the closest he has come to endorsing Proposition 209, which barred racial, ethnic and gender preferences in college admissions and state hiring in California.

Backlash against GOP

That ballot initiative, along with Proposition 187, a 1994 measure that would have ended most social services for illegal immigrants, were heavily promoted by Republican leaders and were widely blamed for sparking an anti-Republican backlash among Hispanic voters.

In Texas, where a court order ended affirmative action at the state's universities, Bush has endorsed a plan that guarantees admission at public universities to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The "affirmative access" program also includes an aggressive push by the higher education system to recruit minorities.

The governor has also pushed for "needs-based" contracting by state agencies, to replace a system that Bush said has awarded government business to the same minority contractors "over and over and over again." The Texas system has a goal of channeling state contracts to small businesses, including those owned by minorities.

"Quotas won't work when it comes to meeting certain social obligations, such as encouraging capitalism to be spread all around the country," he said.

At the same time, Bush is aggressively seeking Hispanic support for his candidacy.

"I'm asking for the vote," he said. "And I'm talking about a message that's inclusive, an education system that refuses to leave people behind."

Bush, who dropped Spanish phrases into his speeches here, was asked by a reporter whether it was enough for him simply to speak Spanish as a way of appealing for Latino votes. He responded by challenging his questioner to come to Texas and examine his record on Hispanic issues.

Persuading conservatives

Unlike Republican leaders in California, Bush opposed Proposition 187, which would have denied public schooling to the children of illegal immigrants. That measure, like Proposition 209, is now tied up in court.

"I said, when it first came out, I was against the spirit of 187 for my state," Bush said. "I felt like every child ought to be educated, regardless of the status of their parents."

His position appears to be persuading some conservative California Republicans to concede that the anti-immigrant push went too far, turning off many Hispanics and contributing to the state GOP's decline in recent years.

"I'm a convert to his belief now," said Assemblyman Bruce Thompson of San Diego County, one of the most conservative Republicans in the state Legislature and a Bush supporter. "Maybe we have been a little too mean on that issue."

Referring to immigrants from Mexico, Thompson added, "You don't treat friends the way we've treated them in California."

George Gorton, a longtime Republican strategist, said the return of good economic times to the state might be making it easier for Californians to be more accommodating toward immigrants from south of the border.

Gorton, who advised former Gov. Pete Wilson, said that Californians backed anti-immigrant measures "when people felt [immigration] was hurting their possibilities for jobs or the crime rate was high."

Targeting Democratic voters

Hispanics are expected to cast between 12 percent and 14 percent of the vote in California next year.

Historically, Democrats have won roughly two of every three Latino votes, but Bush has a chance to cut deeply into that figure.

"The Hispanic vote is very switchable," said Gorton, a Bush backer who predicted that the Texas governor could attract close to half the Latino vote if he is the Republican nominee.

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