ORLANDO, Fla. -- Like eager but awkward suitors, Barack Obama and John McCain are working hard and sometimes fumbling in their efforts to court Hispanic voters who could swing November's presidential election.
For the black Obama and white McCain, the problem is less one of language than of trying to understand a group whose own diversity can make it a mystery to others. It's not a simple matter of saying, "Take me to your leaders."
But that, in essence, is the ground game the presidential candidates and their campaigns have been playing in pitching to voters who could form decisive constituencies in critical battleground states.
"They just come to me and say, 'Who are the bosses of the Latin community?"' said Patrick Manteiga, who runs a family-owned newspaper for Hispanics in Tampa's historic Cuban neighborhood of Ybor City. "That's like coming and asking, 'Who are the bosses of white America, of the soccer moms?"'
Candidates working hard
Both candidates are pressing their case in three speeches in as many weeks to Hispanic umbrella groups and working in other ways to make their outreach more sophisticated. Republicans have opened an office in Orlando, where most of the state's Puerto Ricans live, and Obama opens one this week in Ybor City, Fla.
They've both got their work cut out for them in appealing to a large and growing segment of the population that has leaned Democratic but has not always been motivated to vote. A recent AP-Yahoo News poll found Obama leading McCain 47 percent to 22 percent among Hispanic voters, with 26 percent undecided.
McCain is respected by many Hispanics for refusing to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment over the years. Yet he is viewed in some Latin quarters as a sequel to the unpopular President Bush, a problem he has with voters at large, too.
Obama's vitality and soaring oratory appeal to Hispanics just as they do to others. Whoops of approval were heard throughout his speech this week to the League of United Latin American Citizens' convention.
A diverse group
Yet Obama emerged from Democratic primaries a distant second to rival Hillary Rodham Clinton among most Hispanic groups. Like voters at large, Latino voters question the one-term senator's experience. And there are tensions between blacks and Hispanics.
Hispanic voters are hardly monolithic. Some in the West have roots going back more than two centuries, while others were sworn in as citizens last week. Some consider themselves white and some black, and many represent every shade in between.
During the last presidential election, Hispanics in key swing states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida represented anywhere from 8 percent to more than 30 percent of voters, according to exit polls, and their numbers are only expected to grow this year.
Clara Apodaca, 73, of Las Cruces, N.M., is among the Clinton supporters who quickly made the shift to Obama. The longtime Democrat was hoping to see a woman in the Oval Office, but she now believes Obama would be the best candidate to handle the economy, the war and the country's reputation.
"We're so badly thought of throughout the world," she said. "We need to shore up our relationships."
And then there is Fernando Romero, a former casino executive and longtime political organizer in Las Vegas. Romero advised Democratic candidate Bill Richardson, but he calls Obama's relationship with Hispanics shallow. For now, he's backing McCain.
"Unfortunately [Obama] is the one that we know nothing about and has made little effort to communicate with us," Romero said. "There are so many good qualities that Senator McCain has -- and proven qualities."
The McCain campaign is counting on such voters, hoping they will judge him as an individual and not a fixture of the Republican Party.
But the Republicans are seeing their own defections among Hispanic voters, especially in Florida, where for the first time more are registered as Democrats than Republicans.
McCain remains popular among Cuban-Americans in Miami, who tend to vote Republican and admire his military record and his support for U.S. policy toward Cuba. The campaign unveiled its Florida Hispanic steering committee last week with names of roughly 100 active Hispanic supporters from throughout the state.