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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 December 2007, 00:34 GMT
Hispanics set to be key 2008 voters
Republican presidential candidates are set to gather in Miami on 9 December for a debate sponsored by Univision, the biggest Spanish-language television network in the United States.

The BBC's Lourdes Heredia looks at what the two rival US parties are doing to capture what could prove an all-important Latino swing vote.

"Bienvenidos amigos!" (Welcome friends), "Si se puede" (We can do it).

Immigration activists rally in front of the Capitol in Washington DC (file image)
A failed immigration reform bill stirred up feelings earlier this year

Not so long ago, the majority of politicians tried to speak a few words in Spanish as a way to demonstrate their interest in the Latino community.

But in recent times this has changed, and most of the candidates for the 2008 presidential election appear to prefer to stick to English.

But even if they don't seem interested in dabbling in Spanish, the candidates are certainly interested in capturing the vote of US citizens of Hispanic origin.

Traditionally, the Latino community has voted for the Democrats, although history has shown its allegiance can be swayed depending on the individual candidate.

President George W Bush got 44% of the Latino vote in the 2004 election, for example.

But it remains unclear if another Republican presidential candidate would get a similar level of support.

Priority

The most recent poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research organisation, suggested that 57% of registered Hispanic voters now called themselves Democrats, while 23% aligned themselves with the Republican Party.

In July 2006, the same gap was 21 percentage points.

Hispanic workers in California
California is among the US states with a large Hispanic population

This change comes as the issue of illegal immigration has become the focus of national attention and debate - on the presidential campaign trail, in the corridors of federal, state and local government, and on cable television and talk radio, say the study's authors Paul Taylor and Richard Fry.

Immigration is not only divisive, as the failure to pass immigration reform earlier this year showed, but is one of the issues voters cite as a priority.

"The Republican candidates... should stop using immigration as a wedge issue for political gain and stop scapegoating immigrants. The last debate was a disgrace," said Howard Dean, presidential candidate in 2004 and now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

HISPANIC VOTERS
15% of US population
9% of 2008 electorate
6.5% likely to actually vote
57% of voters support or lean to Democrats
23% aligned with Republicans
Sizeable share of electorate in states set to be closely contested - New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, Colorado
Source: Pew Hispanic Center
This is a reference to heated and personalised exchanges during November's YouTube debate between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The Democratic candidates have also stumbled on immigration issues. Sen Hillary Clinton was criticised for appearing to waver over whether to support a controversial proposal by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to grant driving licences to undocumented immigrants, a plan later shelved.

The Democrats have, nevertheless, attended more Hispanic-focused events than the Republicans.

New Mexico's Democratic Governor Bill Richardson
Democrat Bill Richardson is the first Hispanic US presidential candidate

Their Univision debate took place in September. The network allowed them to speak only English and they had to use translators - even in the cases of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the first Hispanic presidential candidate, and Senator Chris Dodd, both of whom speak fluent Spanish.

The Republicans' Univision debate, originally set for September too, was postponed after none of the candidates except Sen John McCain - who backed this summer's failed immigration reform bill - agreed to take part.

The candidates have only recently signed up for the rescheduled event on Sunday.

The only one to turn Univision down is Rep Tom Tancredo, well known for his anti-immigration stance.

"What the other candidates are doing, it's encouraging violation of the law because it's saying 'Don't worry about the fact that you have to know English to earn citizenship,'" he said.

American dream

Speaking at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) conference in October, Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez said there was "a clear contrast between who respects our community and who doesn't".

The Latino population in swing states such as Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, in particular, will decide who becomes the next president of the United States
Xavier Becerra
Democratic congressman

"Democrats have constantly come to forums identifying their ideas for the Latino community.

"Republicans have been completely absent and I believe that it is an insult to our community, to the power that we hold, and above all to the participation that we have in this society," he said.

Hessy Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, denies these accusations.

She told the BBC that Republican candidates "day by day, in each one of the campaigns, are getting close to the Latino community".

Mike Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that this Sunday's debate at Univision would be a good opportunity to show the Hispanic community a "welcoming Republican party, one that wants to reach out and share our vision of the American Dream with them".

"It is because of Republican policies that the achievement gap in our schools has narrowed. It is with a Republican president that we have seen unprecedented numbers of small businesses, especially Hispanic-owned small businesses open their doors," Mr Duncan said in a statement.

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Xavier Becerra, a Democratic representative from California, says this time Latinos can make a difference, even in the primaries.

"We are 45 million and counting; that is the size of the Latino population, the largest and fastest growing minority population in the US," he said.

"Our population, obviously, is (big) in states such as my state of California, Texas and New York.

"But the Latino population in swing states such as Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, in particular, will decide who becomes the next president of the United States."

Using September 2007 Census Bureau data and projecting from 2004 voting behaviour, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates there will be 8.6m Hispanic voters in 2008, one million up on 2004.

That is a small portion of the overall electorate, but Pew estimates that Hispanics constitute a sizeable share of the electorate in four of the six states that President Bush won by margins of five percentage points or fewer in 2004, helping him to win re-election.

These are New Mexico (37% of electorate), Florida (14%), Nevada (12%) and Colorado (12%).

Select from the list below to view state level results.

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