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US Democratic Candidates Battle for Hispanic Votes in Texas

With the March 4 primary approaching in Texas, presidential candidates from both U.S. political parties are seeking votes from the state's large Hispanic population. More than a third of the people in Texas are Hispanic, with African-Americans accounting for around 11 percent and whites, sometimes called Anglos, now at a little less than half. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the impact of Hispanics on the Democratic party primary will depend on voter turnout and organization.

Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are running commercials in Spanish in Texas and they are also campaigning in heavily Hispanic areas. The race between the two for the party's presidential nomination is very close, and every vote counts.

But Hispanics are not as easy to target as other groups. Candidates spend money on Spanish language advertising, yet surveys show most Hispanics here get their news in English.

Hillary Clinton has the stronger and longer relationship with Latinos in Texas. Hispanics were happy with programs promoted by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, when he was in office.

One of Senator Clinton's most enthusiastic supporters in Houston is businessman Gregory Compean. "I am a third generation Hispanic. I was born here, my parents were born here, but once upon a time, my grandparents had a vision to look for a land of opportunity and now I want to be able to reach out to our community and keep building that bridge," he said.

Compean has donated one of the buildings he owns for the Clinton campaign's local headquarters. He says immigration is an important issue and he likes Clinton's support for comprehensive reform. He also sees her as the candidate with the most experience.

But Thomas Servello is also a Houston Hispanic, and he is volunteering for Barack Obama. "I have been with Obama since he started. I think he knows how to connect to the public. He has connected with Hispanics. All my friends who are Hispanic have also been with me, with Obama. He knows how to speak to everyone, not just the people who have been there before, but the people who are there now and I think he is the right person," he said.

Servello says he is not troubled by Obama's comparative lack of experience. He says he is sure the senator will pick a good team of advisors to help him govern.

Rice University political science professor Earl Black is co-author of the book Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics. He says the historically low voter turnout among Hispanics, as opposed to high turnout among blacks, could undermine Clinton's Texas strategy.

"In general, Obama has an advantage, because the African-American electorate is smaller on paper, but it is much better organized and much better concentrated in Texas's big cities. It will be more difficult for Hillary Clinton to motivate and really turn out the much larger group of Hispanic Texans, who on paper look to be her supporters, but who may not turn out in proportion to their numbers," he said.

Also, the Hispanic population, fed by immigration, is much larger than the numbers of Hispanics who are eligible to vote.

Where the votes are is also important because Texas has a complicated system that involves both a primary and a caucus on the same night, with delegates per congressional district awarded on the basis of Democratic votes cast in each district in past elections. That means that, even if Hispanics come out to vote in large numbers in areas where they are dominant, the number of delegates they deliver will be limited, based on past turnout.

Earl Black says Obama's momentum from ten victories in a row elsewhere and his appeal to young voters give him an opportunity to overcome Clinton here, in spite of her work over the years building support in the state.

"A state like Texas that would look to have a big advantage for Hillary Clinton is probably going to be a lot more competitive, and you certainly could not rule out an Obama victory in Texas," he said.

The most recent surveys show the two Democratic candidates in a virtual dead heat in Texas. Hillary Clinton continues to hold the lead among Hispanics and women, but Obama could cut into that support as he did recently in Wisconsin and other states.