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(UNDATED) Naomi Gonzalez grew up poor in Chicago, bouncing among nine foster homes while her father served time in prison. The single mother of four believes Barack Obama understands her struggle.
“He’s come from poverty, he comes from a single mother, he’s experienced racism,” said Gonzalez, 30, “A lot of us can relate to him.”
Gonzalez, of Grand Rapids, Mich., typifies a surprisingly strong source of support for Obama: Latino Protestants. A new poll finds Obama enjoying a nearly 17-point lead in that group over John McCain.
And while Obama can count on even stronger support among Hispanic Catholics, it’s hardly uniform.
Mercedes Toohey backs McCain because of his stance against abortion, his military experience and his bipartisan approach to immigration reform.
“To me, John McCain’s experience, dedication and service to the country would make him a far better president,” said Toohey, 64, a member of St. Mary Catholic Church in Grand Rapids.
She and Gonzalez are part of a Hispanic voting bloc that could be a swing vote in the election, researchers say. They point to an apparent shift of Hispanic Protestants who supported President Bush in 2004 to Obama this year.
“The Latino Protestant vote comprises about 2.5 percent of the electorate, so the shift may be important — particularly if these Latino voters are found in swing states,” said Corwin Smidt, executive director of the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College.
Hispanics carry considerable clout in New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Colorado — states Bush won by slim margins in 2004, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C.
“In these battleground states, Latinos could be an important part of the vote,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew center associate director.
As Hispanics grow in numbers — at 46 million, they are America’s fastest-growing minority group — so does their political influence. And the votes of many are deeply rooted in their faith.
Turnout of Hispanic voters figures to be higher partly because of strong concern about immigration and the economy, Lopez said. The voter pool also is growing, he said, noting that every month about 50,000 Hispanics turn 18.
Immigration and abortion also weigh heavy on the minds of Hispanic voters.
In a recent survey of Hispanic Protestants, 77 percent said their religious beliefs influence their views on immigration. Nearly 80 percent said a candidate’s position on that issue was important to their vote.
Sponsored by several groups, the survey also showed 31 percent would change their political party if it did not support a more welcoming immigration policy.
The findings show Latino Protestants are volatile “values voters” neither party can afford to ignore, survey authors said.
“Hispanic values voters will not be confined to one party,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “We will vote our faith and vote our values. It’s time all candidates take notice.”
He called immigration a “profoundly religious issue” for Hispanic evangelicals, adding, “The biblical mandate to welcome the immigrant could not be clearer.”
Latino Protestants believe Democrats are more welcoming than Republicans, the poll indicates. It’s one reason why they are swinging toward Obama now after 63 percent supported Bush in 2004.
More than 40 percent associate negative rhetoric about immigrants with Republicans. That hurts McCain, even though he worked on a bipartisan reform bill with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
“Are we going to vote for a party that resonates with us on life and marriage issues but doesn’t necessarily want us, since they tolerated a very strong xenophobic rhetoric from many of their candidates?” Rodriguez said.
While abortion is a key concern for Latinos, they are not “one-issue voters,” added Gaston Espinosa, editor of the recently released “Race, Religion and the American Presidency.”
“Latinos tend to take a holistic approach in terms of how they frame who they vote for,” said Espinosa, associate professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in California. “They’re looking at that through the lens of faith and asking, ‘What would Jesus do in respect to the broader picture?”‘
For Toohey, the broader picture frames McCain as the best pick. Her conviction is shaped by her biblical values and immigrant experience.
The wife of a Vietnam veteran says McCain has the best plan to end the Iraq war. She also argues he is the only candidate who has done anything for immigration reform.
“I haven’t seen anything from Sen. Obama that could tell me, `I really feel strongly on how to deal with immigration,”‘ she said. “At least we have a plan with Sen. McCain.”
Gonzalez, meanwhile, is less concerned about immigration than with the economic woes she sees in her neighborhood and beyond. A Chicago native of Puerto Rican descent, she said minorities like her “see themselves in” Obama, she said.
“He literally came from food stamps to a presidential nominee, and that’s huge,” Gonzalez said. “It’s like there’s poverty and there’s wealth, and there’s a bridge that crosses it. He’s proof that you can cross that bridge.”
By CHARLES HONEY
2008 Religion News Service
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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