(Artwork: Miguel Cruz)
EspaÃ±ola, New Mexico - In the early days of the presidential campaign, Senator John McCain seemed to be in a good position to win support among Hispanic voters. He had sponsored legislation for comprehensive immigration overhaul in Congress, made a point of speaking warmly about the contributions of immigrants and was popular among Latinos in Arizona, his home state, which borders three battleground states here in the Southwest: New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.
But less than two weeks before Election Day, those advantages appear to have evaporated. Recent Gallup polls show Mr. McCain running far behind Senator Barack Obama among Hispanic voters nationwide, only 26 percent of whom favor the Republican. The possibility that Mr. McCain can duplicate George W. Bush's performance among Latinos in 2004, when Republicans won 44 percent of the vote, now seems remote.
Both candidates are spending heavily on Spanish-language advertising, and continue to schedule campaign events to focus on the fast-growing Hispanic vote. Last month, Mr. McCain held a town-hall-style meeting at a Puerto Rican community center in central Florida; a few days later, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, came to this heavily Hispanic city of 9,600 people for a rally at a plaza that dates to Spanish colonial times.
In an echo of his overall slide in the polls, some of the issues that have hampered Mr. McCain's candidacy turn out to have had an even greater impact on the Hispanic population. Latinos cite the crisis in the economy as their biggest concern, trumping immigration and the social conservatism that Republicans thought would help expand Mr. McCain's appeal among religious, family-oriented Hispanic voters.
And if Republicans were counting on tensions between blacks and Latinos, now the nation's largest minority, driving Hispanic voters away from Mr. Obama, that also has largely failed to materialize.
Early in the primary season, when Mr. Obama was still a newcomer little known to Latinos outside Illinois, he began campaigning among Hispanic voters, even in states where he knew he would lose to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the favorite among Hispanics. Political analysts say Mr. McCain has only sporadically and belatedly sought to engage Latino voters.
"The McCain campaign was never set up in a way that spoke to Hispanics," said Matthew Dowd, Mr. Bush's senior strategist in 2004. "Throughout the entire primary, there was no conversation because they thought that was not where the election was. You can't start to campaign in September for the general election among Hispanics. They are very frustrated with Bush and the Republicans, so McCain has a bigger hurdle to overcome."
Hispanics account for three of every eight voters here in New Mexico, where the vote has been extremely tight in the last two presidential elections. Al Gore won this state by just 366 votes as the Democratic nominee in 2000, and in 2004, President Bush triumphed by fewer than 6,000.
In Colorado and Nevada, Latinos account for at least 20 percent of the population and 12 percent of registered voters. Together, the three Southwestern battleground states have 19 electoral votes that are growing in importance for Mr. McCain as his electoral map shrinks.
But events seem to be working in Mr. Obama's favor. Contrary to what non-Hispanic politicians often assume, immigration does not rank as high on the list of Hispanic concerns as the economy, education and health care.
Instead, surveys show that Latinos see immigration as a tool useful in identifying who is friend and who is foe. That may have complicated Mr. McCain's task: despite his sponsorship of the immigration overhaul legislation, he is burdened by nativist elements within the Republican Party.
"The Republican brand has been tarnished as result of the immigration debate and the extreme rhetoric that came out of that debate," said Janet Murguâ€™a, executive director of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. "We think McCain remains an advocate of a comprehensive approach, but his standing has been undermined by those within his own party and the tough immigration plank in the 2008 Republican platform."
To woo Hispanic voters, Mr. McCain seems to have singled out three groups for attention in the Rocky Mountain West: Hispanic veterans, owners of small businesses and social conservatives, especially those who are members of Protestant evangelical groups or the charismatic Roman Catholic movement.
James LujÃ¡n, 47, a deputy sheriff here, fits into the first category. He is a former marine with a son serving in the military in the Middle East, and he said he worried that Mr. Obama would withdraw precipitously from Iraq.
"The troops need to be able to finish what they're doing," Mr. LujÃ¡n said. "I've got one son who is 14 and another who is 8, and if we pull out right away, like Obama wants, they're the ones who are going to have to go back."
His wife, Julie, 36, also supports Mr. McCain. She runs a hair salon, sells real estate as a sideline, and was excited by Mr. McCain's choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate.
"I admire a strong, hard-working woman," Mrs. LujÃ¡n said. "We need to get out of the financial casino and be responsible, and McCain and Palin are the people who can do that."
But independent political analysts point to what they say are basic flaws in Mr. McCain's Hispanic strategy. Republicans "can talk all they want about abortion and same-sex marriage, but survey after survey tells us that even among socially conservative Hispanics, it's the other issues that matter most," said Christine M. Sierra, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.
Mrs. LujÃ¡n's sister, brother and mother, who work together at JoAnn's Ranch-O-Casados restaurant here, strongly echoed that assessment. JoAnn Casados, 57, argues that Mr. Obama "sees it the way we see it."
Ms. Casados's son, Orlando, 39, who works in the family's chili business, said, "I'm worried about health care and the price of gasoline, which has driven up the cost of doing business, and I think Obama cares more about how that affects people like us."
His sister Suzanne, 29, added, "Obama is more focused on the things that are really important, like the economy and health care, while McCain is up and down and all over the place."
Though the 2004 election showed Republicans could successfully appeal to Hispanic voters, that experience may provide less of a road map this year than might be expected. The Hispanic electorate has grown greatly since then, its numbers swelled by several million newly registered first-time voters: green-card holders who have recently become American citizens and young bilingual and bicultural Latinos who are sometimes referred to as "Generation Ã±."
In addition, the bulk of the Latino vote remains concentrated in states not in play, like California, staunchly for Mr. Obama, and Texas, a McCain stronghold. That means the Hispanic vote is likely to be decisive only here in the Southwest and in Florida, where an influx of Puerto Ricans, who traditionally vote heavily Democratic, and Central and South American newcomers, has somewhat diluted the importance of the historically Republican Cuban-American vote.
The Obama campaign in particular has sought to seize advantage of those shifting demographic trends, organizing a voter registration drive in states with large or growing Hispanic populations. In Nevada, the number of registered Hispanic voters has doubled since 2004, to about 120,000, which is seen as a factor that could shift the balance there.
"Nevada is very dynamic, very volatile," said Efraâ€™n Escobedo, senior director of voter engagement at National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, an advocacy group. "We're talking about people who are truly the swing vote in Nevada, with very little party affiliation or allegiance to any particular party or candidate."
Initial concerns that Mr. Obama would not be able to win over Hispanic voters who supported Mrs. Clinton in the Democratic primaries have largely disappeared, though signs of what sociologists call "black-brown tensions" still surface. For instance, John Medina, a 70-year-old Navy retiree living east of here, has a McCain-Palin sign in his yard and when asked why he favored the Republican nominee, he replied, "Because he's not black."
More common, however, was the attitude that Ms. Casados expressed. "We need change, so the fact that Obama is not an Anglo appeals to me," she said. "He understands what discrimination is about, and if he gets in there and does a good job, that will make it easier for all the rest of us, whether black, Hispanic or Indian, to get past that problem."