San Diego Hispanic voters, 16 percent of California's electorate and three times as likely to favor Democrats over Republicans, are poised to play an important -- and perhaps deciding -- role in the upcoming recall election.
The prospect of electing the state's first Hispanic governor in more than a century if Gov. Gray Davis is recalled is rallying some support for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Several recent surveys show him leading Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger by a double-digit margin among likely Hispanic voters.
But large numbers of Hispanics remain undecided -- 36 percent according to the Public Policy Institute of California and 14 percent according to the Field Institute.
With five weeks left for candidates to win their support, attention is going to issues seen as important to Hispanic voters.
"Everyone wants the support of the Hispanic people because they're seeing that we're a great portion of the voters ... and in the future, we'll be the majority," Raul Cornejo, a 34-year-old immigrant from Tijuana, Mexico, said in Spanish as he cleared banquet tables at a San Diego hotel after a speech by Davis to Hispanic business leaders.
Bustamante, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, is reminding audiences of his working-class roots as he makes the round of Hispanic organizations.
Davis has dropped Spanish phrases in his speeches and touted his willingness to give driver's licenses to some undocumented immigrants, a measure he rejected last year.
Austrian-born Schwarzenegger is playing up his own immigration story and this week tapped a Hispanic hero -- Jaime Escalante, the former East Los Angeles calculus teacher portrayed in the film "Stand and Deliver" -- to join his education advisory team.
In a race in which votes could be split among several candidates, the one who is able to solidify Hispanic support could be the one to win, said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute think tank based at the University of Southern California.
"That 16 percent of California voters, especially if you get a block of them, becomes very significant," Pachon said.
But Bustamante can't assume he has a lock on Hispanic voters, said Melinda Guzman, chairwoman of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, which represents more than 450,000 Hispanic-owned businesses.
"Latinos are not unlike any other community. It's a very diverse community," Guzman said. "At the end of the day, it's going to depend on who gets their message out and who does the most outreach."
Whether Hispanics turn out at the polls is another matter.
Hispanics make up one-third of California's population, but less than one-fifth of voters. By comparison, non-Hispanic whites made up 47 percent of the population but 71 percent of voters.
The nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project is leading door-to-door campaigns in more than 30 heavily Hispanic communities to register voters by the Sept. 22 deadline.
Lydia Camarillo, the organization's vice president, predicts Hispanic turnout will be strong because voters are attracted to Bustamante or reacting -- either positively or negatively -- to Schwarzenegger.
Polls show most Hispanic voters support recalling Davis -- 58 percent, according to the Public Policy Institute survey, 55 percent in the Field Poll.