LAS VEGAS — Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle's conservative views on illegal immigration and her limited outreach to Hispanics have done little to endear her to Nevada's largest minority group.
The tea party favorite is challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a swing state that borders Arizona, where a recent effort to enact a strict immigration law has polarized voters nationwide. Angle supports the law, which is generally unpopular with Hispanics, who make up 26 percent of Nevada's population and could decide the narrow Senate race. Reid does not.
"For me, she is scary," said Esperanza Montelongo, a Reid supporter who hosts a Spanish-language political radio show in Las Vegas. "She is anti-anything Latino."
Angle, a former state assemblywoman, boasted during her Republican primary race of opposing a state scholarship because it benefited students who were legal residents, but not citizens. She supports Arizona's Joe Arpaio, a conservative sheriff under federal investigation for potential civil rights violations. She has said Congress needs to define the 14th Amendment, which establishes birthright citizenship.
Angle's campaign, however, said it is not conceding the Hispanic vote. She is courting endorsements from Hispanic leaders and has plans to air Spanish-language ads.
"Her feeling is she needs to bring together all groups," campaign spokesman Jarrod Agen said.
In a year in which many voters seem to be craving new leadership, Angle represents a fresh voice for voters — Hispanic or other wise — disenchanted with President Barack Obama's social and economic agenda.
"They are in the same situation that everyone in Nevada is," Agen said, pointing to the state's wounded economy, where unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies are soaring.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval also could prompt some Hispanics to cross party lines and vote for Angle. Sandoval appears poised to become the state's first Hispanic governor, although his conservative positions on border security issues disappoint some Hispanics.
Polls show the Reid-Angle race to be a dead heat, and with low approval ratings, Reid needs the Hispanic vote to secure his fifth term.
Reid has spent years cultivating a sensitive image on Hispanic issues. He vowed to pass comprehensive immigration reform at a Las Vegas rally earlier this year, an effort that went nowhere in Congress. He has condemned federal raids on illegal immigrants who haven't committed violent crimes.
"We know that at the end of the day the Hispanic vote will be a vote for Reid and not for Angle because of all the work he has done for them," said Jose Parra, Reid's Hispanic liaison for his Senate office and campaign.
But Reid also has fumbled at times. He pushed a bill that would have limited the 14th Amendment in 1993, then apologized for the idea in a 2006 floor speech.
He recently proclaimed, "I don't know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican."
Still, Reid hopes to exploit Angle's perceived weaknesses, airing a handful of Spanish media ads and leaning heavily on existing ties to the Nevada Latino community.
It is a strategy that could play out in Hispanic-heavy states where conservative candidates bullish on border security are threatening Democratic incumbents.
Angle's first visit to an event targeted at Hispanics came last month, her campaign said, when she was driving by a Las Vegas convention center and saw a line of Hispanics snaking out the door. She stopped for an impromptu appearance at the Hispanic business expo, pumping hands and posing for pictures for her campaign cameraman, but was criticized for not meeting with organizers or taking questions.
Otto Merida, president of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce, said it was an insincere ploy to cozy up to Hispanics.
"She took advantage of a moment," said Merida, a Republican who backs Reid.
Fernando Romero, president of the Las Vegas group Hispanics in Politics, said he invited both Senate candidates to speak at a monthly breakfast meeting.
Romero said Angle's camp said she would attend only if she wasn't subjected to questions once there. Romero refused.
"That is an insult to people who are coming who want to ask her a question or who have a concern," said Romero, a political consultant who has helped Democratic and Republican candidates.
Agen said the campaign was trying to arrange a meeting with the group.
Hispanics helped deliver Nevada for Obama in 2008, after the state twice swung for George W. Bush.
"We are not a sleeping giant anymore," said Emma Sepulveda, director of the Latino Research Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. "In Nevada, Latinos are voting."
Roughly one-fifth of votes cast for Obama in Nevada came from adults who identified as Hispanic, according to an Associated Press exit poll. Nearly nine-tenths of Nevadans who voted for Republican John McCain were white.
Political organizers are hoping Latinos play a similar role this year.
"We just decided if we approach this election the way we did in 2008 we can still make a difference," said Jose Moreno-Jimenez, a spokesman for Organizing for America, the grassroots organization that helped elect Obama.
The Hispanic Institute, a pro-business advocacy group in Washington, D.C., launched its first state-based voter registration drive in Nevada earlier this year. State director Artie Blanco said her team signed up more than 8,000 new Hispanic voters, roughly 70 percent of whom registered as Democrats. Fewer than 10 percent registered as Republicans.
"Nevada has a lot of races that are decided by slim margins and we feel confident that Hispanics can be a force and can decide this election," said Gus West, president of the Hispanic Institute.
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