BALTIMORE–Latino voters are the hottest ticket in politics.

And so far, California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante told an influential national audience Thursday, Latino group loyalties are still in play. The 2000 elections could thus turn on which party can lure a population whose predominantly Democratic registration masks an independent trend.

“Latinos are now in the middle of the political aisles,” Bustamante told members of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “They’re shopping around…. You can either consider them confused or as very bright consumers.”

Presidential candidates are responding with the political equivalent of coupons, sales and fancy packaging. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner, touts his Spanish-speaking abilities, his opposition to California’s Proposition 187 and his ability to attract 49 percent of the Texas Latino vote last year.

Vice President Al Gore, who also uses Spanish during speeches, will be meeting Monday with Bustamante and about a dozen other top Latino officials.

“Latinos are now a part of a majority strategy,” Bustamante said. “They now figure into the calculus of candidates who want to win — and speaking in Spanish isn’t enough to win votes, y’all.”

Simple brand loyalty might misleadingly peg the nation’s 30 million Latinos as reliable Democratic voters. In California, 62 percent of Latino voters are registered Democrats, and Gov. Gray Davis won an overwhelming 78 percent of the Latino vote last November.

“As a result of (former Gov.) Pete Wilson’s and the Republican Party’s actions in California, Latinos have been identifying more with the Democrats,” said Michael Latner, survey supervisor with the Field Institute.

Latner was referring, in part, to 1994’s Proposition 187 ballot measure that Wilson backed with hard-edged ads. The measure banning illegal immigrants from schools and most social services proved momentarily popular, winning 59 percent of the California vote even as it drew opposition from the likes of Bush and the Clinton administration.

But Bustamante, a former Fresno-area assemblyman now described as the nation’s highest-ranking elected Latino official, also cautioned that the 5-year-old Proposition 187 controversy can’t fuel Democrats forever.

“The reality is we no longer have Pete Wilson or Newt Gingrich anymore,” Bustamante said. “There are fewer ugly Republicans pushing Latino voters into the Democratic corner.”

Some 18 percent of Latino voters in California consider themselves independent, according to the Field Institute, while 20 percent are registered Republicans. The self-identified Latino Democrats, Latner added, tend to be “a little more conservative” on some issues.

Bustamante further noted that the ranks of Latino independents seem to be growing, and he emphasized that traditional values often associated with conservatives — family, work, patriotism — are strongly held throughout the Latino community. He said Democrats can’t simply sing familiar refrains about civil rights and assume they’ll thereby secure Latino support.

Last year, for instance, the Proposition 227 ballot measure ending bilingual education succeeded in part because it gained support from about half of the Latino voters, Field Institute surveys show.

The growing competition for the Latino electorate also has led to some occasionally bizarre incidents. Last year, hard-right Republican Bob Dornan — citing his opposition to abortion rights — declared himself the “true Hispanic” in his 1998 rematch against Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez. Dornan never made the sale, and he lost the Orange County race.

The 2000 elections likely will include more sophisticated appeals to the Latino electorate. Bustamante, for one, was making his pitch Thursday to a Democratic group founded 14 years ago to encourage more moderate and centrist views in a party grown beholden to liberal interest groups.

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