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."