Cover Story

Speaking the new language of politics

Issue: "John Kerry: On a roll," Feb. 14, 2004

Poor Missouri. Despite boasting more than one-fourth of the total delegates up for grabs on Feb. 3, the Show Me State couldn't get a single candidate to show up for a scheduled debate on election eve. Instead, the Democrats flocked to Phoenix, where the delegates were fewer, but the stakes were higher.

In the world of Democratic politics, where minority voters often spell the difference between victory and defeat, two of Tuesday's primaries were viewed as crucial tests for the November election. South Carolina, with its 30 percent black population, has long been the candidates' first chance to prove their popularity with African-American voters.

That's why everyone cleared his calendar for a last-minute debate in Greenville, and why all the candidates spent months courting Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state's most influential black politician. ("It was like coming to see the Dalai Lama," in the words of USC political scientist Brad Gomez.) In his bus tour around the state, John Edwards made a point of stopping at historically black colleges, where he always received a huge ovation with his line: "I believe the family you're born into and the color of your skin shouldn't limit what you can achieve."

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Experts said all the attention was not unfounded. "In order for Democrats to win, they have to have a candidate that resonates with the black community and mobilizes turnout," Mr. Gomez explained. "The thought all along was that South Carolina would be the true testing ground for these candidates."

Both John Kerry and John Edwards passed the test. Each took about a third of the black vote, despite the almost non-stop South Carolina campaign of the Rev. Al Sharpton, the last remaining African-American candidate in the race.

In Arizona, the Democratic hopefuls had a different point to prove: that they could appeal to Latino voters, now the nation's largest minority group. One by one, between songs strummed by a mariachi band, the candidates took the stage in a Phoenix hotel, pitching their ideas to a standing-room-only crowd of some 1,500.

Without a hint of irony, the candidates criticized Republicans for pandering to special interests, then proposed a host of Spanish-inflected new initiatives that elicited cries of "Viva!" from the crowd. John Kerry offered to fast-track citizenship applications for the 37,000 legal immigrants serving in America's armed forces. Howard Dean called for more affirmative action. Dennis Kucinich proposed teaching three languages to all schoolchildren. John Edwards, busy campaigning in South Carolina, said through a representative that he would require state colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition to children of undocumented workers.

The debate, sponsored by the League of United Latin American Citizens, vividly illustrated the growing importance of Hispanics in the Democrats' electoral calculus. LULAC initially envisioned a small event designed to increase voter registration and introduce Latinos to a few local officials. But as word of the meeting filtered out, candidates scrambled to get on the program. Within days, all but John Edwards and Al Sharpton had committed to attend, and the national media descended on Phoenix in droves. Missouri was suddenly an afterthought.

In the end, it was momentum rather than mariachi that swept Mr. Kerry to a 42-27 win over Mr. Clark. But in a state where more than 25 percent of the population is of Hispanic origin, the primary debate served as a valuable practice run for the general election.

"Do the right thing, vote for Clark!" called one volunteer as he handed out leaflets. "How do you say that in Spanish?" he laughed. Come November, he won't have to ask.

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