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Republicans Struggle To Sway Latino Voters In Nevada

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Barack Obama won Nevada when he won the presidency in 2008. So did George W. Bush before Obama and Bill Clinton before Bush.

Nevada is a swing state — and when Democrats win it, it's with the strong support of Latinos who account for 17 percent of the state's voters.

But recent polls have shown that while most Latinos still support the president's re-election, that support is waning.

Republicans in Las Vegas see an opening, but it's one that they are finding hard to exploit.

Mixed Views On Obama

In the parking lot of the Mariana's Supermarket on the east side of Las Vegas, most of the shoppers speak Spanish. Mariana's is a local chain, founded by Mexican immigrants a couple of decades ago. It bills itself as the Hispanic supermarket for Las Vegas. It's in a working-class neighborhood where Obama did very well with Latino voters in 2008.

According to the polls, most of them supported Obama then and support him now.

"I think he's doing a good job," Manuel Ruedo, a bagger at Mariana's, tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "The way I see it, it's not like he can go there and do whatever he wants, right?"

But some who voted for Obama last time, like Sandy Chan, say they won't vote for him again.

"Oh, he made a lot of promises and he didn't accomplish them," she says as she loads her shopping bags and young daughter into an SUV. "That's how we think about him. The economy was going to go up. A lot of Hispanic people were going to be able to get a job. But that didn't happen."

And some are undecided, like Richard Munoz, a shopping center security guard who moved here from California where he used to be a cook. He says he regrets his vote in 2008.

"I voted for the wrong guy; he's in office. If he can maybe do something different — show that he's willing to change the economy, I mean, instead of stuff that's going on overseas," he says, referring to Obama sending military advisers to Uganda. "What are we benefitting from that?"

Union President Says Latinos Will Come Around

It's not as if Obama and the Democrats have no cards to play for Latino votes in Nevada. Most Latinos here are working class. More are registered Democrats than Republicans. Latinos account for almost half of the 55,000 member Culinary Workers Union. They work at the hotels and casinos that are the heart of the economy of southern Nevada.

The president of the local Culinary Workers Union, Nicaraguan-born Geoconde Arguello-Kline, endorsed Obama early in the 2008 cycle. She and the union are still very much with him. As for that notable loss of enthusiasm among Nevada Latinos, she says they'll come around.

"The people, they have to see the facts. And the facts [are], the country went through a lot before we had President Barack Obama," Arguello-Kline says. "We already had a big, tough situation where we knew were going to go through a recession. We can't blame one person about what's been happening for many, many years, because that was a crutch.

"You know, the economy is not back yet. But at the same time, people realize inside them, when you heard about attacking the middle class? Whoa, what's this?"

By attacks on the middle class, Arguello-Kline means cuts that are affecting firefighters and school teachers. She says Republican support of such cuts will alienate her union membership.

Local Republicans Frustrated

Latinos' palpable disappointment with the administration over unemployment that is still more than 13 percent in this state, over the worst foreclosure rate in the country, and over the lack of immigration reform has energized local Republicans. But it also has them frustrated.

When the Republican presidential candidates debated in Las Vegas last week at the Western Republican Leadership Conference, local businessman Robert Zavala asked: "We have 50 million Latinos and not all of us are illegal. What is the message from you guys to our Latino community?"

The answers included Newt Gingrich's promise of a growing economy, Ron Paul's plea to not think about people in groups, and Rick Santorum's appeal to values of faith and family. Rick Perry defended the 14th Amendment's grant of citizenship to babies born here, despite their parents' status, while Michele Bachmann called for legislation governing so-called anchor babies.

Before the debate was done, Mitt Romney charged Perry with creating many new jobs in Texas for illegal immigrants and rebutted Perry's charge that he had hired illegal immigrants in Massachusetts.

A few days later, Zavala says he was frustrated with the debate.

"I'm still waiting for the answer," he says. "Our party has not realized how to reach the Latino community. That message doesn't exist."

But if Latinos are turned off enough by the Democrats and stay home, that alone could bring the state back into the red column.

James Campos, who worked on Sen. John McCain's campaign in Las Vegas, figures the Republicans need 40 percent of the Latino vote in Nevada to win this state's valuable five electoral votes next November.

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