WASHINGTON – It’s no secret that Alberto Gonzales’ appointment as attorney general was a watershed moment for American Hispanics – and for a years-long effort to woo more Latino voters to the Republican Party.

Though the political strategy is long term, Gonzales has moved swiftly and energetically, more like a political candidate in a campaign than a Cabinet appointee, to reach to out to kindred ethnic audiences and showcase his status as the nation’s first Latino attorney general.

In office barely more than 100 days, Gonzales already has visited Mexico and met with Mexican President Vicente Fox and spoken to gatherings of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Latino Small Business Economic Conference and the National Council of La Raza.

In addition, trips for two major speeches in the last month took Gonzales to Los Angeles and Scottsdale, Ariz., in the heavily Hispanic Southwest.

And when he held his first news conference in the Justice Department it was with Benigno Reyna, the head of the U.S. Marshals Service and a fellow Mexican-American. Numerous Spanish-language media were there to cover it.

There’s no denying the stakes in an appeal to Hispanics.

In recent years, Hispanics have become, at more than 40 million strong, the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States, and many are clustered in California and Texas, which between them offer 89 electoral votes – nearly one-third of the total needed to capture the presidency.

Record Latino voter turnout was crucial to the landslide earlier this month that elected Antonio Villaraigosa the first Hispanic mayor of Los Angeles since 1872.

Gonzales “is trying to show that Bush is serious about Hispanic voters,” Columbia University political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza.

Although President Bush is popular with many Hispanics, it’s not clear that translates to the rest of the GOP – particularly Mexican-Americans, who constitute by far the largest segment of the Latino population in the United States

Gonzales said he’s not out to court Hispanics more than any other group.

“I’m the attorney general for all Americans, not just for the Hispanic community,” he said in a brief interview.

Still, Gonzales acknowledged, “there are people, certainly, in the Hispanic community, younger people, that are looking at me as an example of what’s possible in this wonderful country.”

Democrats are keenly aware of that such role modeling gives the GOP a powerful political tool.

“Alberto Gonzales is the living, breathing embodiment of the Republican Hispanic strategy,” said Joe Garcia, director of the Hispanic Project for the New Democrat Network, which advocates centrist positions for the Democratic Party.

What’s more, Garcia said, it’s a very effective strategy. “I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but nobody has done more for Hispanics in the last four years than this administration,” Garcia said. “They didn’t take us for granted.”

Gonzales’ stature is hard to overestimate, said Garcia, because as the chief U.S. law enforcement official he is plausibly “the most powerful Hispanic on Earth.”

Not surprisingly, Hispanic media pay close attention to Gonzales. But so do key advocacy groups not known for their coziness with the Republican Party.

Heads turned in the Latino community on the night of March 8 when Gonzales spoke to La Raza, one of the nation’s most influential Hispanic advocacy groups, which, though nonpartisan, has roots in the civil rights movement and historically has leaned left and toward the Democratic Party.

With Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, La Raza has been eager to establish a beachhead with Republicans.

Speaking moments before Gonzales, new La Raza President Janet Murguia acknowledged that outreach to the GOP is controversial within her group.

“Some may not think this is the right thing to do, but I respectfully disagree. We have too much on the line,” Murguia said.

Gonzales is tailor-made for this kind of bridge-building, said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

“He is an important symbol and will be a conduit for organizations that haven’t had a great relationship with the Bush administration,” Suro said.

The message to Democrats, Suro said, is that the Hispanic vote can no longer be taken for granted.

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Republicans have been busy developing other ties to Hispanic organizations, particularly those receptive to their conservative philosophy.

While federal funding for many social service agencies has dried up, the Bush administration has delivered hefty grants to Nueva Esperanza, a Philadelphia-based social service agency rooted in conservative evangelical Protestantism, which has been supportive of Republican policies.

Bush has twice appeared at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, run by the Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., the Baptist minister who heads Nueva Esperanza.

Earlier this month, Bush and Gonzales both spoke at the Latino Small Business Economic Conference sponsored by the Latino Coalition, a 10-year-old Republican-leaning business group. Last month, both spoke to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

At least for now, Gonzales’ remarks to Hispanic audiences emphasize his rags-to-riches biography and his desire to clear away obstacles so others also have a shot at the success he has enjoyed.

“As the son of poor, uneducated Mexican migrants, I have lived the American Dream,” Gonzales, 49, told the small-business conference.

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Except for calling for renewal of the USA Patriot Act, Gonzales, who is famously cautious and circumspect, has mostly steered clear of controversial measures he may be called on to sell or enforce.

For instance, Gonzales has not used his platform before Hispanic organizations to talk about his support for the so-called REAL ID legislation recently approved by Congress. REAL ID would greatly tighten requirements for illegal residents and others seeking a driver’s license, and many immigrant and Latino groups vehemently opposed the measure.

For now, it’s OK that Gonzales is not taking high-profile stands on issues, because much of the Hispanic media still are celebrating Gonzales’ status as a trailblazer and his importance as a role model, said Lupita Colmenero, associate publisher of El Hispano News in Dallas and president of the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

But eventually, the honeymoon will end and Gonzales will be assessed on how he deals with tough issues, “especially … immigration, which is a very delicate issue,” said Colmenero.

“Whatever results he brings … that’s how he will be judged,” she said.

“Obviously,” Colmenero said, “the Hispanic community has big expectations.”



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AP-NY-05-27-05 1802EDT


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