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US Presidential Candidates Court Hispanic Voters

American presidential candidates are aggressively seeking support from Hispanics as the race for the 2008 presidential election heats up. Latinos have become an important voting bloc in key states -- such as California, Florida, Texas and New York. And, as Steve Mort reports from Orlando, Florida, the issue of immigration reform has galvanized Latino voters.

Candidates vying to become the next president of the United States are courting Hispanic voters at events such as one in Orlando, Florida.

The candidates, such as Democratic Senator Barack Obama, are trying to win support from Latinos by touting their credentials on issues like immigration.

"Nobody has been a more consistent supporter of comprehensive immigration reform than I have been".

Polls show immigration reform is the biggest issue for U.S. Hispanics, especially now that Congress failed to pass a bill to improve border security and legalize millions of undocumented workers, mainly from Latin America.

The most recent U.S. government data estimates there are more than 40 million Hispanics in the United States -- accounting for more than 12 percent of the total U.S. population.

Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros was the first Hispanic leader of a major American city. He says Latino communities are growing fastest in places where presidential candidates most need support in order to win. "When you look at the most populous states in America -- California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois -- they also happen to be the states that have the largest Latino populations in America. Add to that some of the fastest-growing states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada -- Latinos are going to be a factor".

President Bush's efforts to grab Latino support raised his share of the Hispanic vote from 35 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2004.

So 2008 presidential candidates, like Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton, have sought backing from high-profile Hispanics.

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, who supports Clinton, says issues like immigration have motivated Hispanics to turn out to at the polls, making them a crucial voting block. "We've seen a continuous rise in the turnout of Latino voters in the year 2004 in the presidential election, last year in the midterm elections when the rest of the population dipped in turnout, our population rose in terms of turnout, and the projections for 2008 continue to rise."

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials confirms this. At its recent conference in Orlando, it stressed that last November's U.S. midterm elections saw the highest Latino turnout on record -- nine million voters, compared to six million in 2002. Most of those votes went to Democratic Party candidates.

But Houston-based political researcher David Hill says neither party can count on unwavering support from Latinos."It's very much an independent vote that's up for grabs, and maybe that's the stimulus for more politicians looking at it to find some opportunity. But it's the kind of thing, I think, that makes some politicians pause because they haven't quite got a fix yet on 'who are Hispanics politically and which direction are they headed'?"

He says his research shows Latinos are interested in a range of issues, including education, health care, the economy and U.S. relations with Latin American countries like Mexico and Cuba.

And he agrees that Hispanics can have a decisive impact on the result of next year's Presidential election -- if they turn out to vote in large numbers.