Does Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have an edge over Sen. Barack Obama with Hispanic voters? I think she does, although not for the racially tinged reasons that at least one Clinton operative would have you believe.
Sergio Bendixen, a veteran ethnic research specialist with the Clinton campaign, kicked up a dust storm of controversy after he was quoted in a recent issue of The New Yorker as saying: "The Hispanic voter and I want to say this very carefully has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."
Other respectable experts tell me that's not true.
For example, Chicago's Harold Washington, New York's David Dinkins, Denver's Wellington Webb and Dallas' Ron Kirk were all black big city mayors who received more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist who specializes in Latino and immigrant voting behavior.
And at least eight black U.S. congressmen represent districts that are heavily Latino, according to Gregory Rodriguez, author of "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America."
Unfortunately, there is a nugget of truth to the notion of black-Hispanic tensions, but, like politics, the friction tends to be very local. "A lot of places have seen big influxes of Hispanic immigrants, and you see a lot of tension in those places," Roberto Suro, former head of the Pew Hispanic Center, told me.
"But those also are not places where you find tons of votes because they tend to be recent arrivals," said Suro, who is now a professor of communications at University of Southern California. "The high school fights, battles in jails and other disputes in churches that you read the most about overwhelmingly involve new arrivals who aren't voting or can't vote because they are not citizens."
It's almost impossible to tell how much of a role race will play with Hispanic voters this time around, Suro said, because this presidential race involves "so many firsts."
Yet Bendixen was not about to be called on the carpet by the Clinton campaign for inciting unnecessary racial friction. Instead, when NBC's Tim Russert asked the New York senator and former first lady about it in the Democratic presidential debate in Nevada, she shrugged off Bendixen's quote as "a historical statement."
Well, not quite. History would tell us that Obama will attract a healthy majority of Hispanic votes, if he wins the Democratic nomination. The Clintons don't want him to get that far, so they're not about to stand in the way of any wedges that might be driven between Obama and Hispanic voters.
If misinformation about black-Hispanic relations helps to marginalize Obama as the "black candidate," it would fit with the hardball tactics that the senator and her husband have been firing Obama's way lately.
But, it would not be fair to attribute Clinton's edge to the race card. The strong edge that the senator shows with Hispanic voters in polls came after years of hard work by her and her husband to build good will and enlist allies among Hispanic voters, politicians and community leaders.
"It is not surprising that Latinos who voted 79 percent for Bill Clinton in 1996 would be heavily for Hillary Clinton now," Luis Clemens, editor of CandidatoUSA, a political Web site focusing on Hispanic voters, told me.
Many Hispanic voters remember Bill Clinton's presidency as a time of economic prosperity, and his wife has benefited from those good feelings, Clemens said. "Her organization is very solid," he said, using the Spanish word for a "machine." By comparison, he quipped, Obama has had to run up against a lot of Hispanic voters who say, " 'Barack que?' Barack Who? They don't know him."
In getting himself known, Obama has had to play catch-up since launching his campaign last year. He's enlisted help from knowledgeable supporters like Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a fellow Chicagoan, and former Denver Mayor Federico Pena. Still, Obama faces an uphill fight as his campaign tries to prevent the talk of a black-Hispanic divide from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.