While much of the political world's attention is focused on the battle in Iowa among Democratic presidential contenders, a commonly ignored but important story is unfolding in Republican circles. The GOP is moving quietly but forcefully to build and consolidate a viable political relationship with Hispanic Americans.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, 54 percent of Hispanic-American adults rated President George W. Bush's job performance as "good" or "excellent." That's big news because Hispanic Americans are now the largest minority group in America.
This emerging political marriage is no accident, and its implications for the 2004 elections are substantial. The Bush organization in particular has labored long and hard to foster a strong bond with Hispanic voters. Call it "geographical comfort," if you will. Both the president, when he was governor of Texas, and his brother Jeb Bush, now governor of Florida, learned firsthand the vital need to have good, working political relationships with the considerable Hispanic voting blocs in those states. Both Bushes pierced through old stereotypes about minorities always supporting Democrats. The governors realized that, as a whole, Hispanic leaders are open to the message of promoting small business and cutting taxes.
Now all that forward-looking strategy is starting to pay off. Hispanics more and more are casting ballots for Republicans. Further, Hispanic candidates are starting to make waves in big political races. Perhaps the most prominent among them is Mel Martinez, who recently resigned his Bush Cabinet post as secretary of Housing and Urban Development to return to his home state of Florida. There he is running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate seat now held by retiring Democrat Bob Graham.
Both Gov. Jeb Bush and the White House likely will stay "officially" neutral in this race. But insiders know full well that Martinez is the choice of the Bush leadership in the Sunshine State. As a result, don't expect to see Katherine Harris -- the somewhat controversial former Florida secretary of state and current Florida congresswoman -- entering the field of Republican candidates for the seat.
Martinez's story is nothing shy of inspirational. At the age of 15, he and his brother were evacuated from Castro's Cuba during an operation organized by the Catholic Church and supported by the U.S. government. Martinez first lived in military camps before being provided temporary homes by a succession of families. Several years later, he and his brother finally were reunited with their parents here in the United States.