Obama must earn Hispanic support

Sen. Hillary Clinton’s speech to the Hispanic caucus of the Democratic National Convention proved to be something of a bittersweet experience for her supporters. And she still has plenty of them among the caucus. They were the people wearing Hillary buttons. The men and women with tears in their eyes as she spoke. The California delegate named Bob Archuleta who sat next to me, still mourning.

They were people like labor leader icon Dolores Huerta and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, and sitting behind me, state Sen. Paula Sandoval and former school board member Lucia Guzman. These women need no buttons. This community, as diverse as it is, is still small and its leaders few enough that their voices are magnified.

Once the primary ended, Huerta, Molina, Sandoval and Guzman shifted their support to Obama. This is true of Hispanic voters, in general, and, by the way, "in general," should be required after every mention of Hispanic voters. Let us stipulate here that the Latino vote is complex. Diverse group. Diverse interests. Let us state the obvious: Once you reduce any group to one of its characteristics, such as, oh, I don’t know, ethnicity, you risk straying into caricature. The Latino community is both victim and perpetrator of such oversimplification.

By a margin of 2-to-1, Latinos from across the country rushed to support Clinton’s presidential bid, never looking back at the young senator from Illinois because for many in this still-clannish community, "up-and-comer" is another word for "stranger." Now, even as polls show Obama has a comfortable lead over Republican John McCain among Hispanic voters, he remains a cipher to many.

We need Clinton here, Ramona Martinez, Hispanic caucus chair of the Democratic National Committee and a Colorado superdelegate, told me recently. "We need her to send the message it’s time to move on."

Clinton did just that Monday, the day before her much anticipated speech to the convention. Between the shouts of Hil-la-ry! Hil-la-ry! Between the calls of "thank you," and "I love you," from the audience.

It was a powerful speech in which the senator reaffirmed her long ties to the Latino community and her commitment to universal health care, immigration reform and economic opportunity.

"I am asking those of you who supported me — I will be forever grateful — to work as hard for Barack Obama … "

And next to me, Bob Archuleta gave a sigh and said, "OK. OK."

"Let us join together here. Let us remember what we were fighting for," Clinton continued. "We were not just fighting to elect a particular person president. We were fighting to take our country back. Let us join hands. We may have started out on different paths … But we are on the same journey now. That journey leads not just to the White House, but to a better future for our families and children."

It was a speech interesting for what it said — this was an unequivocal message to support Obama — and for what it did not. Clinton sold the Democratic Party and its values. She did not sell Obama. That, it seems, she is leaving him to do on Thursday night.

It’s hard to measure how much impact Clinton’s words will have, but I did run into Colorado delegate Awilda Marquez, a Clinton supporter who just Sunday told me she did not know whether she would vote for Obama.

"You know, honestly, she’s almost talked me into it," Marquez told me. "When she said this is not about the candidate, this about our country, that touched me. It will be hard for me not to vote now. But it was her. It was her. She spoke to me. Not him."

The road to the White House, Latino political leaders say these days, comes through the Hispanic community. This is a version of the sleeping giant metaphor, a reference to the untapped potential and future power of Latino voters. The candidate who carries the Latino vote in swing states like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Florida, is the candidate who becomes our next president.

I have, over the course of this campaign, asked people what Obama (and McCain) must do to win more Latino voters. On Sunday, my question went to Huerta. Obama will have to work not just through political leaders, but community leaders, she said, not just through English media, but Spanish. Latino voters, she said, "have got to understand (Obama), and they’re not there, yet.

"Hillary is out there by herself, but there is only so much she can do. Obama has to do the work. It’s one thing to say, ‘I will vote for Obama,’ it is another to go out and work for him."

It’s a message as old as the sleeping giant: We are Latinos and we are Democrats, but do not take us for granted.


(E-mail Denver Rocky Mountain News columnist Tina Griego at griegot(at)RockyMountainNews.com)