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Campaigns woo new Hispanic citizens as key bloc

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

In Florida, a state known for its conservative Cuban American Republicans, this year marked the first time that more Hispanics are registered as Democrats than Republicans. At least part of that comes from new citizens. Still, recent polls show McCain ahead among Florida Hispanics overall, making support from new Hispanic citizens in the Sunshine State all the more crucial for Obama.

After the Miami citizenship ceremony, Panama native Graciela Hidalgo stood with her 11-year-old son Jesse waiting to sign up with the Democrats. Hidalgo, 46, has lived in the United States nearly half her life but waited to become a citizen, first because she had arrived illegally and later because she was too busy working and raising her son.

She said she was most worried about the economy, the Iraq war and, to a lesser extent, immigration.

“I would have liked Hillary,” Hidalgo said wistfully of Hillary Rodham Clinton, “but McCain for me is not an option. He’s all war, war, and the Republicans haven’t done much.”

Those new Florida citizens interviewed who did support McCain tended to be older and to come from communist Cuba or socialist-leaning Nicaragua and Venezuela, where their experiences made them more sympathetic to the Republican candidate, a former Vietnam prisoner of war.

Jose Delgado, 74, a retired construction worker, arrived in the United States in 1986 from Camaguey, Cuba, after years of struggling under the government there.

“McCain will be stronger on communism and in foreign affairs in general,” Delgado said. “I’m not in agreement with many of Bush’s policies, but [McCain] will bring change.”

Strong sentiment for Obama emerged in interviews with new Latino citizens in other swing states with sizable Hispanic populations, although many also expressed admiration for McCain.

In Denver, Guatemalan native Eddie Samaoya, 73, who works as press operator says he and his six sons — all citizens— often chat about politics.

He believes both candidates could do a good job, but two issues are key: “McCain is capable, but Obama has a longer life ahead of him. And he can end the war,” Samaoya said.

Mayra Crum, who came to the United States from Baja California, Mexico, registered as a Republican minutes after becoming a citizen at a Las Vegas ceremony and will vote for McCain. She thinks he can get the country out of Iraq and do more to help the “terrible” economy.

“[McCain] has plenty of experience. You know, I love when he speaks — he makes you feel confident, like you’re going to put your country in good hands,” said Crum, 46, who teaches citizenship courses.

Even swing states with small Hispanic populations, like Virginia, could feel the effect of new Latino voters. Hispanics make up only about 3 percent of Virginia voters, but in 2006, Democrat Jim Webb won his U.S. Senate seat by a margin of only about 10,000 votes.

Salvadoran native Arturo Munoz, 64, of Fairfax, Va., began educating other Hispanic immigrants about the issues after his hours were cut at an aircraft maintenance company in March. Munoz, who supports Obama, became a citizen in August after living seven years in the United States.

“We can make the difference in these elections,” said Munoz, through a translator. “If more Hispanics vote, the future president will have to address topics important to them.”

Associated Press writers Gillian Gaynair in Washington, D.C.; Kathleen Hennessey in Las Vegas; Ivan Moreno in Denver; Elizabeth White in San Antonio and Sue Holmes in Albuquerque, N.M. contributed to this report.

(Associated Press)