Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) campaigned through heavily Hispanic South Texas on Friday, attempting to make inroads into one of the most important constituencies in the state's key March 4 primary.
In previous primaries and caucuses, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has consistently won the Hispanic vote, and Texas will show whether Obama's post-Super Tuesday winning streak has increased his appeal among a bloc of voters essential to the Democrats' hopes of winning the White House in November.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week showed Clinton and Obama running even overall in Texas. But Clinton led Obama 59 percent to 36 percent among likely Latino voters, who will make up one-third or more of the Democratic primary electorate.
Obama is a stranger in South Texas, compared with Clinton, who has been coming to the region for three decades, first to help register voters in the 1972 presidential campaign, later to help her husband, former president Bill Clinton, in his 1992 and 1996 campaigns. She tapped her Texas network to raise money for her two Senate campaigns. She also got a head start on Obama for the primary here, opening her Texas campaign on the night she was losing primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District with a rally in El Paso and the next day a series of stops in South Texas.
Obama brought his standard themes of hope and unity to his opening events in South Texas, but also some tailor-made messages and lines aimed at wooing voters. He called for the creation of a new Veterans Administration hospital to deal with the health needs of the sizable population of military veterans in the area, who now must drive many miles to receive care. "We need a VA hospital right here in the [Rio Grande] Valley," he said. "People don't need to be driving 200 miles [for health care]."
He also talked of about changes in trade policy that would be good for both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and he soft-pedaled his support for building a fence along the border designed to curb the flow of illegal immigrants. A fence alone, Obama said, is "not going to work" to solve the nation's immigration problems.
During a rally at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Obama offered a brown-black connection with the largely student audience with references to Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, who organized the United Farm Workers Union in California. King, he said, had once written to Chavez to say their causes were one.
Obama also spent 45 minutes with about two dozen students from the university talking about the problems of financing the cost of college. He touted his proposal for a $4,000 annual tax credit for students, saying it would nearly wipe out the average college debt that Texas students accumulate, and, to a military veteran, said he would like the G.I. Bill updated and expanded to meet the needs of all veterans, whether from the active duty military or the National Guard and Reserves.
"Just be careful about those credit cards," he told the students toward the end. "Don't eat out so often."
Before leaving for an event in Corpus Christi, Obama appeared at the corner of the press filing center. "Crank it up, guys," he said to the reporters huddled over their laptops. "Words matter. Don't listen to Hillary." Then he added, "That's a joke."
When a reporter asked him to respond to a statement from Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the likely Republican presidential nominee, criticizing Obama on Cuba policy, Obama, saying he was not familiar with what McCain had said, quickly disappeared behind a blue curtain.
In Corpus Christi, Obama opened his rally by asking for a moment of silence for the police officer in Dallas who was killed earlier Friday while helping with traffic control for Clinton's arrival. He said the same officer had been on duty when he was in Dallas earlier in the week.
Obama found sizable crowds Friday -- an estimated 5,500 at UT-Pan American and 6,500 in Corpus Christi -- but they were smaller than he had earlier in the week in other parts of the state. He ended the day in Austin, with a rally at the base of the state capitol that drew a crowd estimated at 20,000.
There are six districts in South Texas where Hispanics make up more than half of the registered voters, and they will be at the heart of the competition between Clinton and Obama. Those six districts will award 22 of the 126 delegates that will be awarded through the primary on March 4. Clinton has more endorsements among Hispanic politicians in the state, but Obama has picked up the backing of some younger Hispanic politicians.
Obama advisers believe that, with more time to campaign in Texas than in some other states with large Latino populations, their candidate can improve his percentages against Clinton. "There's a familiarity gap we have to close," communications director Robert Gibbs said.