JACQUES BILLEAUD | Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX (AP)—Hispanics are poised to emerge as an influential voting force in the United States, observers say, especially now that two southwestern states are playing an earlier role in the presidential nominating process.

More than 35 million Hispanics live in the United States, according to Census Bureau figures. Nearly 2.7 million reside in the seven states holding primaries or caucuses Tuesday, the first day of multistate elections for Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.

In New Mexico, Hispanics are 43 percent of the population, the highest percentage in the nation. Nearly a fourth of Arizona residents are Hispanic. Between the two states are 81 pledged Democratic delegates—a small fraction of the 2,162 delegates needed to nominate a challenger to President Bush, but still significant prizes so early in the process.

Both states moved their contests forward in the election calendar to increase their importance. Winning either state would be a boon for a struggling campaign or a boost in momentum for a front-runner. That means Hispanics will have a chance to shape national politics.

“It will help influence the elections in other states,” said Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Republican and Democratic candidates in the 2000 election felt that influence when Al Gore won New Mexico by 366 votes. Exit polls indicate a third of New Mexico voters were Hispanic, and they voted for Gore over George W. Bush by a 2-1 margin. Arizona Hispanics favored Gore by a similar margin, although they made up just 10 percent of those voting.

“What has emerged very strongly in the last election and, then, for this election, is the fact that Latinos are very strong swing voters,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of the National Council of La Raza’s voter mobilization project.

Even though Democrats historically have enjoyed strong Hispanic support, the Latino community is complex and can be split by the GOP if its message is right, said Fred Solop, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University.

Republicans can take a portion of the Hispanic vote if they focus on abortion and family values, Solop said, and Democrats can keep Hispanics if they concentrate on jobs and health care.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney already this year have visited Arizona, a state they won in 2000.

With the selection of Democratic delegates just days away, Howard Dean, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich are joining John Kerry, Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman in visiting New Mexico this weekend. Clark, Lieberman and Kucinich are campaigning in Arizona as well.

No Democrat appears to have a lock on the Hispanic vote in the Southwest. That may be because no one has yet made a persuasive effort to win over Hispanics, focusing instead on the Iowa and New Hampshire elections that can make or break a campaign.

Some of the candidates have run Spanish-language ads and bought airtime on Hispanic networks, but only Kerry is doing so now. In a 30-second TV ad, Kerry says in Spanish, “I want to return hope to this country.”

Of the other candidates, Dean ran two TV ads targeting Hispanics last year in both states, and Clark broadcast one earlier this year. In Arizona, Lieberman ran radio ads in mid-January targeting Navajo and Hispanic voters. Edwards has done none.

“To this point, and it may change, I have not observed any special targeted efforts toward the Hispanic Democratic voters,” said F. Chris Garcia, a University of New Mexico political science professor.

Dave C. Rubi, president of the Arizona Hispanic Community Forum, a small advocacy group for Latinos, said the Democrats have their hearts in the right place, but he still believes they are out of touch with Hispanics.

“I think they have an understanding that you shouldn’t discriminate against other Americans,” Rubi said. “But, by the same token, I don’t think they have studied us and lived with us. I think that’s true of most politicians.”

In Albuquerque, Ray Quintana has waited for the Democratic candidates to court Hispanics in New Mexico. He and his wife, Lorraine, fear that all the talk about the Hispanic vote may mean little.

“At this point, I think they’re all just giving lip service,” said Ray Quintana, a jeweler whose father left Chihuahua, Mexico, at age 15 to find opportunity in New Mexico.

“That’s what they do is just sort of court us ... and that’s it,” Lorraine Quintana said. “But do they mean what they say?”

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Associated Press Writers Susan Montoya Bryan and Leslie Hoffman in Albuquerque contributed to this report.

Hispanic Tuesday