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Question: What is the world's second-largest Hispanic country? Answer: The United States of America.

Barack Obama and John McCain are devoting a sizable amount of their time and resources to chasing the Latino vote.

"Make no mistake about it: The Latino community holds this election in your hands," Mr. Obama said Sunday at the annual gathering of the National Council of La Raza, an organization that champions the rights of the Spanish-speaking American community.

Yesterday, it was Mr. McCain's turn to address the group. "I do ask for your trust that when I say I remain committed to fair, practical and comprehensive immigration reform, I mean it," he told them. "I think I have earned that trust." It was the third time in three weeks that the two candidates have addressed Latino gatherings.

Mr. Obama is right: America's burgeoning Spanish-speaking population could decide the outcome of the presidential election.

There are now an estimated 46 million Hispanics living in the United States, of which about 34 million are there legally. Only Mexico has a larger Hispanic population. One American in eight is of Latino background. Last year, salsa outsold ketchup, as measured by revenues.

Because the Latino population is younger than the national average, and because many Latino immigrants are here illegally, the community is only expected to account for between 6 and 7 per cent of the actual vote in the November election.

"But despite these modest numbers, Hispanics loom as a potential 'swing vote' in next year's presidential race," the Pew Hispanic Center concluded in a Dec. 6, 2007, report. "That's because they are strategically located on the 2008 Electoral College map."

(In the United States, the terms Latino and Hispanic are generally used interchangeably, although the former term denotes ethnicity and the latter language spoken.)

In New Mexico, Latinos make up 37 per cent of the state's eligible electorate. In Florida the figure is 14 per cent; in Nevada and Colorado, it's 12 per cent. All four states went Republican by narrow margins in 2004. The Democrats hope to take some or all of those states this year.

But predicting the Latino vote will be no easy thing. Both the Democratic and Republican candidates bring unwelcome baggage that could cost votes within the Latino community.

The Latino vote traditionally leans heavily Democratic, but George W. Bush worked hard to swing the vote, and with some success. According to exit polls, 40 per cent of Latinos voted Republican in 2004.

But Mr. Bush's bid to forge a bipartisan consensus on immigration reform fell to Republican congressional opposition. The GOP is paying a price: In the 2006 midterm elections, the Latino vote split 70 per cent Democrat and 30 per cent Republican. A recent Gallup poll has Mr. Obama 30 percentage points ahead of Mr. McCain among Latinos.

Mr. McCain has been trying to reverse the slide, reminding Latinos that he championed the immigration reform legislation. But that stand angered Republican conservatives, and Mr. McCain now says that securing the border must come before legislative reform.

Mr. McCain, caught between placating his conservative base and appealing to Latinos for their support, risks alienating both camps.

Mr. Obama can hardly take the Latino vote for granted, however. In the Democratic primaries, they heavily favoured Hillary Clinton. There are tensions between the Latino and African-American communities, as both struggle to rise out of the poverty that afflicts too many of their members.

The danger for Mr. Obama is that, rather than vote for him, Latinos will just stay home.

Few, however, expect that the Latino vote actually will decline. The immigration issue remains a powerful concern for Latino voters, who are anxious to find a path to citizenship for their undocumented friends and family members.

And Latino Americans are also concerned about high-school graduation rates far below the national average, and chronic under-representation in management and the public service.

For that reason, "this election has, by far, the most at stake for Hispanic Americans," maintains Octavio Hinojosa, executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, a non-partisan organization that promotes the advancement of Latino Americans.

"As our population grows, we have a greater stake in the overall wellbeing of our country."

As political observers note, the American Latino community is anything but monolithic. Some are the descendants of settlers who arrived in what is now the United States 400 years ago; others are newly minted citizens. Some identify themselves as white, some as black, some as neither. They can be socially conservative, but economically liberal; older Cuban-Americans see the world differently from their children and grandchildren.

What many share is a pride in their adopted country. "There is a strong strain of patriotism within the Hispanic community," Mr. Hinojosa believes. Which may be why each election, gradually, the Latino vote increases, and why both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain pay so much attention to it.


El voto Latino

The U.S. Latino vote has been gradually increasing and could be a deciding factor in key areas during the November election for President.

Hispanic share of eligible voters*

1996: 6.2%

200: 7.4%

2004: 8.2%

2007: 8.9%

*U.S. citizens ages 18 and above.


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