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Tired president hooks up with Tampa Hispanics

The telephone operator said, "One moment for the president of the United States."

Everybody in Janet Cruz's South Tampa living room said "Shh!" to each other, and the familiar voice _ tired, a little hoarse _ came over the speaker phone.

"Hello," Bill Clinton said.

About an hour after he addressed the nation Saturday morning about the overnight bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta, the president spoke from the Oval Office to Hispanic Democrats in Tampa and about 50 other cities in 17 states.

In remarks he cut short because of the Atlanta situation, Clinton asked a nationwide telephone hookup of Hispanic leaders to help him win re-election in November.

He stressed his support of opportunities for families and their children to make a better life, such as the earned income tax credit, steps to make it easier to buy a home and more help for going to college.

"It's all designed to give people the tools they need," Clinton said. He accused Republicans of trying to divide the nation in ways such as cutting off education to the children of illegal immigrants. "They're much better off in school than on the street."

Then he was gone. "Please forgive me," Clinton said. "I haven't had a lot of sleep, and I've got to get back to the matters at hand."

Clinton's two Hispanic Cabinet secretaries, Henry Cisneros of Housing and Urban Development and Federico Pena of Transportation, then led the participants of the conference call in a discussion of Clinton's record.

In Tampa, about 30 people came to the home of Cruz, who will be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention next monthin Chicago. E. J. Salcines, former Hillsborough state attorney, represented Florida in the conference call. Clinton named Salcines in his list of thank yous.

Cruz, who keeps a photograph in her living room of the president and first lady posing with her family, served appetizers and politics to her guests. A table was covered with Clinton brochures in English and Spanish. The current state attorney, Harry Lee Coe, was campaigning in the neighborhood and dropped in; so did Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn.

Across the street from Cruz's home, which was prominently decorated with a Clinton banner, one of her neighbors pointedly hammered a Dole for President sign into his yard as the meeting progressed. "Viva democracy," somebody said.

The Hispanic vote will help decide whether Clinton becomes the first Democrat to carry Florida since 1976. Many experts predict Republican Bob Dole will not win the White House if he does not carry Florida.

But the "the Hispanic vote" is not a monolith. Tampa Hispanics _ Salcines prefers the term "Latino," a broader term reflecting the city's Spanish, Italian, Cuban and other forebears _ have a strong and long Democratic tradition, dating back to the working-class politics of the cigar industry. But in modern South Florida, hundreds of thousands of Cuban voters have passionately considered Republicans to be the strongest opponents of the Castro regime.

Clinton has tried to cut into that perception. He signed the Helms-Burton bill punishing foreigners who do business with Castro. He won grudging good marks for his response to Cuba's shooting down of two pilots from the Brothers to the Rescue group.

Saturday's conversation showed that Democratic Hispanics also will use another strategy to woo their Republican-leaning brethren. They will argue that Clinton is better for Hispanics on many other issues that should matter: economic opportunity, immigration, multiculturalism, bilingual education, children's issues. They especially hope to appeal to younger voters, whom they hope are concerned about a broader number of issues.

From New Mexico, speakers praised Clinton's support of Operation Head Start for children. From Texas, they praised his trade policy. From California, they hailed his opposition to Proposition 187, the measure to cut off aid to illegal immigrants. From New Jersey, they supported his crime bill, and from Chicago, his help for the working poor through the earned income tax credit.

Cisneros said he had heard Clinton was running 50-50 with Dole among South Florida Cubans (an optimistic estimate, even to some of the loyal supporters in Cruz's living room). "My belief is that Florida is within range," Cisneros said.

As the Tampa attendees talked among themselves afterward, Gabe Cazares, the former mayor of Clearwater, was blunt: "No self-respecting Hispanic can vote for Bob Dole, if nothing else, because of his English-only stand."

Ramon G. Florez, president of the Hillsborough chapter of the state Democratic Hispanic Caucus, said Hispanic voters should not support a party that opposes diversity and wants to cut help for those who genuinely need it.

"It is a diverse society," said Florez. "Why are they (Republicans) attacking the very principle the country was founded on?" As for cutting welfare, he said, "We all were poor when we came into this country. We all needed help."