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The bloc to watch

Politics | With a Texas primary March 4, Hispanic voters are feeling their clout

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

HOUSTON- Maribel Ortega didn't know you had to register to vote in a primary. The 34-year-old had never voted. By the time she found out, it was late afternoon on Feb. 4-the cutoff date for Texas' March 4 primary. She raced to the Raul C. Martinez Courthouse Annex in south Houston, arriving at 4:49-closing time is 4:45 p.m.-and jumped out of her white Nissan sedan. Officials allowed her to register.

Ortega is not politically minded. She doesn't even plan on reading candidates' platforms. A cultural Catholic for three decades before joining Iglesia Central, a large Pentecostal church in Houston, she says, "Because my faith teaches me to care for the stranger in my land, this immigration issue has become too big to sit out." Many evangelical Hispanics evidently share her feelings, and their votes will be crucial in November.

Evangelical Hispanics number 11 million and counting-roughly triple the number 10 years ago. Many have come from Catholicism: That's politically noteworthy because Hispanic Catholics lean overwhelmingly Democratic, but Hispanic evangelicals broke 2-to-1 for President George Bush in 2004.

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GOP strategists prophesied that their party would pull in half the Hispanic vote in the 2006 midterms, but then the immigration-reform battle kicked in. Democrats carried the Hispanic vote by roughly 30 points.

What will happen now? John McCain's comprehensive immigration-reform bill from 2006, a big reason for talk-show opposition to him-Glenn Beck has called him "Juan McCain"-has gained him Hispanic support. "On immigration, McCain is the only one who took a stand," says Lynn Godsey, president of the Alianza Hispana Evangélica del Metroplex in Dallas and a member of McCain's national Hispanic advisory board.

Godsey says McCain was the only candidate of either party who met specially with Dallas Hispanic pastors. "Besides Huckabee," Godsey explains, "he is the only one who says, 'We need to be compassionate. We are all children of God.'"

Last year's Pew Forum survey, simply called "Changing Faiths," is the most in-depth exploration available on the religious shift of Hispanics from Catholic to evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Among its findings:

• 68 percent of Hispanics are Catholic, but that number is dropping.

• 43 percent of Hispanic evangelicals are Catholic converts.

• 83 percent of those who left the Catholic Church said the reason was to experience God more directly and personally.

• These evangelical converts seek out churches that are charismatic and ethnic, with 29 percent saying they speak in tongues (11 percent for non-Hispanics).

The movement is evident in Houston, which has the nation's third-largest Latino population and Hispanic churches that have recently increased twofold and sometimes threefold. The Hispanic congregation spun out of Houston's Lakewood Church now packs in as many as 6,000 a week. But Marco Barrientos, a high-profile Dallas evangelical pastor and Latin Grammy-nominated musician who was raised Catholic in Mexico City, says, "I would not stress that we are converting from one church to another, but that people, like myself, have realized what it means to be a Christian."

Barrientos says immigrants "go through a lot of stress-separation from their families, living by themselves or with other strangers. . . . Usually it's the evangelical churches that go out to meet them. Evangelicals are exactly that-evangelistic."

Barrientos also notes that most Hispanics will continue to care about the sanctity of life-both protecting the unborn and showing compassion to the newly arrived.

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