SAN DIEGO -- It's time to check in on the Latino vote, which just a few months ago seemed up for grabs but now seems firmly in the hands of the Democrats.
Polls show Barack Obama leading John McCain by a 2-1 margin among Latino voters. That's no thanks to Obama, who -- aside from joining McCain in addressing Latino advocacy groups this summer -- hasn't done much to reach out to the Latino electorate or tap into Latino grass-roots networks that could increase turnout. If Obama is resonating with this demographic, the credit belongs to brand loyalty and how wedded Latinos feel to one brand in particular: the Democratic Party.
The question is whether Obama can dominate the vote tally among Latinos by a large enough margin that he keeps McCain to less than 35 percent of the Latino vote. That's the magic number for the GOP. Political observers note that Republicans who earn at least that percentage have a good chance of winning the White House. Hessy Fernandez, the McCain campaign's spokesperson for Latino media, recently said that the campaign is aiming for 45 percent of the Latino vote. It's not likely that McCain will get that, but he can win the election with less.
Either way, the McCain campaign is going to have to ratchet up its game. Its Latino outreach has been as abysmal as those of the opposition.
Consider what happened at the Democratic and Republican conventions. The candidates' acceptance speeches made only passing references to America's largest minority or an issue that many care deeply about: immigration. In Denver, Obama said he didn't "know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers." In St. Paul, McCain declared "everyone has something to contribute and deserves the opportunity to reach their God-given potential from the boy whose descendants arrived on the Mayflower to the Latina daughter of migrant workers."
That's all? The candidates will have to come up with more compelling material in these final weeks of the campaign when their attention will be focused on battleground states, a number of which have large Latino populations. Surveys by Sergio Bendixen, who was Hillary Clinton's Latino pollster, examined the preferences of Latinos in four of these states and found Obama leading McCain in three of them and tied with him in the fourth.
In Nevada, Obama was up among Latinos 62 percent to 20 percent. In New Mexico, he was leading 56 percent to 23 percent. In Colorado, it was 56 percent to 26 percent. And in Florida, the race was tied at 42 percent.
The problem with Bendixen's figures is that his polls were taken in early to mid-August, before the party conventions, and before the candidates' running mates were announced -- that is, before Sarah Palin's arrival on the national scene.
For many voters, that single event changed the race. Some polls show sizable increases for McCain among white women and independents since Palin joined the ticket. Others show more voters have a high opinion of Palin than they do of the three men also running in this race.
McCain's selection of Palin may be his last hope to turn in a decent showing with a Latino population that has always rallied to his side in his home state of Arizona out of respect for his military service and maverick ways. The question is whether Latinos will continue that tradition by rallying around another maverick and a Blue Star Mom with a son headed to Iraq -- an experience many Latino mothers can relate to.
Thanks to Palin, McCain has one last shot at winning over Latino voters. He should take full advantage of it.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is email@example.com