Latinos flex political muscle

US Presidential Elections: Texas Tales; Elaine Davenport on her state's build-up to the poll
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The Independent Online
Austin - "Register to Vote" was the cry heard last weekend all over East Austin, home of the city's Latino community. Volunteers from the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project went door-to-door and sat at tables outside Catholic churches and supermarkets in the 80F sunshine.

The effort was part of Latino Vote USA, a national campaign to register 1 million new voters for the 5 November election by last Sunday's deadline. The campaigners also spread the word about the first-ever major Latino march on Washington DC, to take place on 12 October. Tens of thousands of Latinos from across the country are expected to deliver the message that their numbers are growing and that Latinos matter.

There was emphasis last weekend not only on voters-to-be, but also on those already registered, who were asked to sign a pledge to go out and vote. The pledge card was added in recognition of the difference a large Latino turnout could make in a state where they make up 28 per cent of the population and are expected to outnumber Anglos as the majority ethnic group by 2010.

"We see we have some power this time," Robert Donley, a member of the Southwest Voter steering committee, said. He refers to the growing number of Latinos in Texas, the growing number registered to vote, and the probability that the race for the US Senate between Victor Morales, the Latino name highest on all Texas ballots, and Phil Gramm, a Republican, will bring a record number to the polls.

The frosting on the cake is national influence. Since Latinos tend to vote Democrat, a large turnout may alter whether a big chunk of electoral votes for president goes to Bob Dole or Bill Clinton, who are in a dead heat in the Texas polls. The Democrats have not carried the presidential vote in Texas since Jimmy Carter won in 1976, but while Mr Clinton does not need the state to win re-election, it is a must for Mr Dole.

The race is between Mr Morales, the teacher who came from nowhere with no money and campaigned in a little white pick-up truck to win the Democratic nomination, and Mr Gramm, who has been Senator for 12 years. Early this year, Mr Gramm was sent running back to Texas with his tail between his legs after caucuses in Iowa and Louisiana rejected his "I-want-to-be- President" attempt and he was forced to pull out in New Hampshire.

Mr Morales, who is billed as David vs Goliath, Senor Smith Goes To Washington, or Don Quixote in a Pick-up Truck, has enjoyed the national spotlight during his rise to prominence. He beat two incumbent congressmen to get the nomination, spoke at the Democratic National Convention and spent a day last month with Mr Clinton on his Texas tour.

"At least I didn't pass out," said Mr Morales, openly excited to be with the President. He continues to rely on his image as a sweet, naive, honest guy. He stresses he is not Phil Gramm, known for a masterful use of negative advertising and accepting money from all sources.

Mr Morales's short political career has been defined by defiance of conventional political wisdom, most notably on 25 September when he said Congressman Henry Bonilla, the state's first Latino Republican to hold national office, was a "wannabe white" who reminded him of the Hispanics he called "coconuts" as a kid - "white on the inside, brown on the outside". This set off storms of protest from Mr Gramm's supporters, including Haley Barber, Republican National Committee Chairman, who called his words "abhorrent and indefensible".

The reaction was different in Austin's Latino community. "He didn't say anything new," Valerie Menard, associate editor of Hispanic Magazine, said. "It's just fact," Mr Donley said, as he registered voters. "It helps define the issues."

"I used terms I should not have," Mr Morales said in a sideways apology. "Public discourse should be conducted on a higher plane." Before the "coconut" remark, Mr Morales was losing to Mr Gramm in the polls by 16 percentage points; no poll has been released since.