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Campaigns woo new Hispanic citizens as key bloc

Associated Press | 10/8/2008, 4:47 a.m.

MIAMI — On a muggy afternoon, more than 3,000 immigrants, most of them Hispanic, wave flags, cheer and weep as they swear to protect and defend the United States of America as its newest citizens.

Moments later, dozens of volunteers from the Democratic and Republican parties swoop down on the new citizens as they file out of their citizenship ceremony in a Miami auditorium, competing to sign them up to vote. It’s a scene that is being played out at citizenship ceremonies nationwide.

Supporters of Barack Obama and John McCain are fighting for every voter this campaign, and naturalized citizens of Hispanic descent are a growing target. In 2004, there were 4 million foreign-born Hispanics citizens of voting age. Today, that number is more than 5 million, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the nonprofit Pew Hispanic Center.

These new voters are especially important in swing states like Florida and New Mexico, said Jeffrey Passel, the center’s senior demographer.

“In places where the election is very close, they make all the difference in the world,” Passel said.

Voter registration data, polls and Associated Press interviews with new citizens in a half-dozen key states suggest Obama has the most to gain by reaching out to these new citizens.

Cuban-born Victor Castillo, 27, who took the citizenship oath along with his mother at the recent Miami ceremony, fought past a frenzy of party volunteers to register to vote with nonpartisan county poll workers, but said he was leaning toward Obama.

“Who’s more willing to work with the middle class, not just the upper class? I believe Obama will be better for that,” Castillo said, adding that he disliked McCain’s negative campaigning. “He’s trying to bring Obama down. Why don’t you do something yourself, show your ability?”

Obama campaign spokesman Federico de Jesus said the Democratic presidential candidate is devoting more money to bilingual advertising than any previous campaign, and spending roughly $20 million on Hispanic outreach, including voter registration efforts.

“In the states where the difference is 1 or 2 percentage points, the ground operation is going to make the difference,” he said.

Ana Navaro, McCain’s adviser on Hispanic affairs, said Republicans aren’t investing the same amount of money as Democrats on registering new citizens. She also allows that the party lost support among new Hispanic citizens because of some Republican lawmakers’ remarks during recent congressional debate over proposed immigration reforms.

But the McCain campaign is using Spanish-language ads to try to convince Hispanics that he was on their side of that fight and that he has had a lifelong interest in Latin America, Navaro said.

“On the other side, you’ve got a man who’s never so much as set foot in Tijuana,” she said.

Overall, the Hispanic vote seems to be coalescing behind the Democrats.

Hispanic registered voters supported Obama over McCain by a 66 percent to 23 percent margin in a nationwide survey conducted by the Pew center in June and July. The survey found that Latino voters have moved sharply into the Democratic camp in the past two years, reversing gains made by the GOP earlier in the decade.