As Democratic candidates continue to court people of faith, the Republican Party's bid to hold on to such voters, particularly evangelical Hispanics, is slipping.

Nearly four in ten Hispanic voters and two-thirds of Hispanic evangelicals backed Bush in 2004—and those numbers were headed up for 2006. "Conservative projections had 53 percent of all Hispanics and 80 percent of born-again Latinos going Republican," said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Then immigration came to the forefront of national discussion. Republicans generally pegged it a law-and-order issue and talked tough, leaving an opening for Democrats to appeal to Hispanic voters. "Democrats are saying, 'Let's talk about your family and your faith,'" Rodriguez said. "They're saying, 'The other side doesn't want you.'"

In the 2006 midterm elections, Latino support for Republicans sank. "Exit poll numbers showed Hispanics shifted away from the Republicans," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Latinos gave 30 percent of their vote to Republican candidates, a 10-point swing."

If the pattern continues, the resulting double-digit dive could mean millions more lost votes for the Republicans in 2008. Although Latinos will likely cast only 6.5 percent of the votes in November, according to Lugo, they may double that showing in swing states like Florida, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The country's largest minority group, Latinos tend to oppose gay marriage and say that abortion should be illegal. More than 80 percent are Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, or evangelicals. But as voters, they often feel a tension between their support for conservative positions on social and moral issues, and their desire for liberalized immigration and economic policies.

"There's no doubt Latinos in general, including Latino evangelicals, are more economically liberal," Lugo said. An ideal candidate might be a "big government social conservative," he said, "not unlike many Catholics."

Still, the Hispanic evangelical vote is far from decided. "I don't see anyone capturing the momentum," said Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association. "There hasn't been much [progress toward immigration reform] on the Republican side. That's disappointing. But a lot of Latinos are still waiting for Obama or Hillary, to hear how strong their commitment is."

According to the Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., president of Esperanza USA in Philadelphia, Hispanic pastors are "distraught" because after strongly supporting Republicans on family issues, immigration is causing them to rethink their support. "Immigration is a family values issue," Cortés said.

White evangelicals and Hispanic evangelicals are deeply split on the issue. While white evangelicals have polled higher than the general population in considering immigrants a burden to society, for instance, nearly 60 percent of Hispanic evangelicals believe immigrants strengthen society.

"A divide is an understatement," Rodriguez said of white and Hispanic evangelicals' differing views. "The term is schism."

Despite such division, the National Association of Evangelicals' vice president of government affairs, Richard Cizik, said he hopes evangelicals can work together to find a solution to the immigration debate. The nae, which is affiliated with Rodriguez's national Hispanic group, takes no official stand on the issue.

"Historically, [evangelicals have] stood for law and order, and we understand the need to welcome the stranger," Cizik said.

"Throw them out of the country, declare them illegal, and consider them personae non gratae is not the best way to court Hispanic evangelicals. Moreover, it's not the slightest bit realistic. If that's your method of courting Latino voters, I'd suggest you start over."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today reported on the "Hispanic Swing Vote" during the last Presidential campaign.

Tim Stafford examined the political influence of Latino churches in his profile of Samuel Rodriguez.

More articles on immigration and politics are available from our full coverage areas.

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