Obama, Clinton Battle for Hearts of Hispanics
RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas -The sagebrush scrubland and sun-blighted arroyos of Starr County, home to more Hispanics per capita than any other county in Texas, have become the scene of an ardent and unlikely political courtship.
The area's population is a shade over 98 per cent Latino and the county seat of Rio Grande City (pop. 12,000) has more in common with Mexico City than Dallas - with the choice of radio stations mostly limited to salsa, country and Spanish-language country.
Hugging the banks of the Rio Grande River, the sprawling county is also a transit route for Mexicans sneaking into the country.
Signs here are primarily in Spanish, and largely rural Starr County is one of the poorest places in the United States while nonetheless standing near the top of the nation's per-capita beer sales.
In a state where whites - or Anglos, as they are usually known in Lone Star country - are now a minority, Hispanic voters like those of Starr County have become a crucial constituency for Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
It's a reversal of fortune for Latinos in Texas, who once were written off as a bitter and disfranchised community with little political clout.
Clinton has strong appeal among Texas Hispanics and the New York senator ceaselessly points out that one of her first political jobs was registering voters in west and south Texas. Then there's the fact her husband Bill became the first president to appoint an Hispanic cabinet secretary.
The attachment, born out of loyalty, is analogous to the support the federal Liberals enjoyed among immigrants as a result of Pierre Elliott Trudeau's multiculturalism policy.
Old-style political patrÃƒÂ³ns no longer hold sway over south Texas, but Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, a staunch Clinton supporter, may well be the next best thing.
In his dark-panelled office at the Hacienda-style county courthouse the rotund, silver-haired Vera reclines in an overstuffed burgundy leather chair with the county seal embossed in gold leaf on the headrest.
"I don't think we've ever had this much attention in a presidential race," says Vera, a courtly fourth-generation politician who is perhaps the most influential Democrat in the county.
"We have a very strong regional identity here. This isn't Mexico ... but I eat Mexican food and do Mexican activities and listen to Mexican music."
Even if he remains a distant second in Starr County, Obama has roared back from a double-digit deficit in the polls to take a slim lead in what remains a close race in Texas.
The Illinois senator has done it by winning over Democrats from all demographic groups and has bitten into Clinton's huge lead among Hispanics statewide.
At a recent rally in San Marcos, a college town near the state capital of Austin, Obama took the stage at an evening rally in a park on the campus of Texas State University.
Standing under backlit, soaring pecan trees, Obama whipped the crowd of more than 20,000 into a rock-show frenzy with his trademark oratory.
The lengthy queue outside the rally demonstrated the breadth of Obama's appeal: large numbers of college kids of all races, middle-aged couples, seniors.
It also included people like JosÃƒ© Reyes, who is precisely the type of voter Obama has targeted.
"I've never been to a political event, but he's creating a new political stir. People are getting excited about him ... I think Obama draws you to him," says Reyes, 37, a factory office manager who attended with his extended family. "When you're a minority and have a candidate who looks like you and lived through some of the same things, it's another reason to support him."
At another rally, this one at the University of Texas in Austin, about 2,500 students gathered under the infamous clock tower from which deranged student Charles Whitman shot and killed 14 students in 1966.
The crowd was waiting to hear former president Bill Clinton deliver a stump speech and exhort them to vote in the advance polls, which have drawn record turnouts.
One of the warm-up acts included a troupe of Hispanic dancers, and there were scores of Latinos in the crowd (Hispanics are a sizable minority on campus).
"I'm going to be voting for the first time, and I think this election is really, really important ... I would love to vote for a woman, I think Hillary's got it all," said Gillian Ramirez, 19, a second-year psychology student who sported a Clinton T-shirt.
But if the main Democratic contenders and their surrogates have spent long hours wooing voters in the state's major cities, perhaps the fiercest fight has been taking place in regions like Rio Grande City.
The heavily Hispanic areas of south Texas have drawn considerable attention from high-wattage personalities like Senator Edward Kennedy stumping on behalf of Obama, and former first daughter Chelsea Clinton rallying support for her mother.
According to the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Texas think-tank that studies Latino voting behaviour, the Hispanic electorate has doubled since 1996.
"We're like an iceberg - y'all don't notice until it pops above the surface," says institute president Antonio Gonzales.
Obama held a prayer vigil in nearby Brownsville on Friday, an event seen by the Texas media as a last-minute appeal to strongly Catholic Hispanic voters.
"This is something I've never seen before, all of a sudden we're front and centre," says Gonzalez.
While no minority electorate is monolithic, Gonzalez thinks the Hispanic vote will become more influential over time because "there are trends, and the Latino vote is democratic leaning, and there is a swing element to it."
Another thing about Hispanic voters: they're young; in some districts, more than half the voting-age population is under 30.
Only about one in four Hispanic Texans is foreign-born, a much lower percentage than in some other states, including California. Surveys indicate that those new Tejanos are among the staunchest left-wing Democrats in the state. That's also the case in other states with large Hispanic populations, at least five of which - California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Florida - will be crucial battlegrounds in the November election.
Though George W. Bush was able to win broad swaths of support from Hispanic voters - who tend to be socially conservative - they have since turned away because of restrictive border policies and the war in Iraq.
"Hispanics are doves. We love the warrior, but hate war - especially wars where young Latinos die," says Gonzalez. "We see the military as a way to give our children middle-class jobs."
Gonzalez and other leading figures in the Hispanic community also hope the current election season will explode some of the myths about the Latino electorate.
Like the supposed rivalry between blacks and Latinos.
Gonzalez says the idea that Hispanics won't vote for a black candidate is a canard originally perpetrated by a Latino pollster with strong ties to Clinton.
"I think he was trying to make another argument for supporting Clinton ... but to say Latinos won't vote for a black is stupid; it's just wrong," he said, pointing to municipal, congressional and gubernatorial races won by blacks in primarily Latino districts.
Indeed Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas who nearly became the state's first black governor on the strength of Hispanic votes, is one of Obama's strongest supporters in the state.
In Starr County, the question is academic, the black community being small to the point of non-existent. And because of the influence of local heavyweights like Judge Vera, there is little prospect that Clinton will lose here.
"Hillary Clinton has done a lot for us, and so has her husband, people recognize that," says Vera.
Though the era of the patrÃƒÂ³ns is gone - which Vera notes almost wistfully - many of the area's older voters still tend to follow the advice of the party establishment.
"We call it la palanca ... that still happens, especially among our elders," Vera said.
At the Texas Cafe in Rio Grande City's historical district - the town dates back to the 1750s and is one of the oldest settlements in the region - the servers wear Clinton buttons on their green smocks.
In the quaint, wood-panelled interior, a Puro Mexicano decal competes for wall space with a "Support our Troops" sticker, a U.S. flag and a sign that reads: NOTICE: TWO BEERS PER PERSON.
"We're 100 per cent Hillary here," laughs Bertha Chaco, a 29-year-old server. "What's not to like about electing a woman?"
Choco cuts the conversation short as her boss looks over warily. An Obama supporter perhaps?
"Not around here," she smiles.