ALBANY -- Republican candidate for governor Rob Astorino is hoping to use his fluent Spanish to attract the growing Latino vote, which helped Republicans George Pataki, Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani pull off wins in the state dominated by Democrats.
"Está el Estado de Nueva York ganando o perdiendo al día de hoy?" Astorino asks ("Is New York State winning or losing today?") in a shot at his opponent, Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
It's a common line for Astorino in his bilingual speeches, his Internet video addresses in Spanish, and on the Spanish version of his website. Astorino, who spent a year in Barcelona in 2001 to immerse himself in the language and culture, also has been speaking at Spanish-language churches.
"The Hispanic vote is the sleeping giant," said Assemb. Felix Ortiz (D-Bronx), a 20-year veteran in the State Legislature.
Whether Astorino can rouse that giant is a question on which the underdog's hope of victory in November may ride. The Latino vote isn't an automatic bloc for Democrats, but Astorino's opposition to the Dream Act, which would provide government aid to persons brought to the country illegally as children, doesn't make him a clear alternative for many Latino leaders.
Astorino opposes using public money for the aid, but supports a "dream fund" that would collect private-sector funding. He said that's a more feasible way to create the program when state government has to strike a balance with the needs of middle class families struggling to pay for college.
Winning the Latino vote alone wouldn't be enough for Astorino to overcome Cuomo's 29-point lead in the latest polls, But the Latino vote is significant and growing fast in New York, said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic consultant who researches and teaches about voter trends at the University at Albany.
Gyory said the Latino vote accounted for 9 percent of the 2010 governor's race vote and likely will be well into the double digits in November. "Every four years, you are seeing the minority share increase and it's backed up by Census trends," he said. "It could grow much larger."
Pataki won 45 percent of the Latino vote in 2002 to beat Democrat H. Carl McCall, who sought to be the state's first African-American governor, Gyory said. In 2005, Bloomberg, then still a Republican, won 35 percent of the Latino vote when he beat former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, a Latino, to become New York City mayor.
Last month, salsa artist Willie Colon, a Democrat, endorsed Astorino in one of the campaign's more elaborate events.
"It happens every time," Colon said. "We vote and work to get our Democratic candidate elected, and after they win they forget their promises . . . we have to vote smarter; we need to vote for the candidate that meets our needs. Latinos have to become a swing vote."
Statewide polls don't yet show any advantage for Republicans among Latinos. A Siena College Research Institute poll two weeks ago found 29 percent of Latinos had a favorable view of Astorino, while 19 percent did not, and 56 percent didn't know enough about him to have an opinion.
Ortiz said a candidate traditionally wins the Latino vote by championing a single issue or two important to the Hispanic community.
Pataki found those issues after the Latino vote had long been assumed to a Democratic bloc. For example, in 2001, he took on the Republican administration of President George W. Bush and the U.S. Navy to demand an end to 60 years of naval bombardment practice on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, and won.
Today the issue is the Dream Act. It failed in a vote in the State Legislature this spring, angering Latino leaders. Some accused Democrats of bringing the bill to the floor without enough votes for it to pass in order to embarrass Republicans.
"That issue could have happened if the leadership pushed it harder," Ortiz said.
Cuomo was the focus of much of that disappointment, but he continues to support the Dream Act. He also has the support of elected Latino leaders important for getting out the vote.
Astorino argues that Cuomo and the Democrats have ignored the Latino community for too long and that he got a sizable Latino vote last year in winning a second term as Westchester County executive.
"We carried a majority of the Hispanic vote," Astorino said. "That's not by mistake. I go where Republicans normally don't go . . . "
Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-Bronx) sees ways Astorino could appeal to Latinos beyond that issue. Diaz, a conservative minister, said Astorino is attracting Latino attention for his opposition to strengthening late-term abortion laws as proposed by Cuomo, his public embrace of his religion, and for his jobs programs.
Astorino will appear Thursday at the influential New York Hispanic Clergy Organization, which could result in an endorsement. "Then we will decide" who to support, Diaz said.
Yet Astorino faces additional complications. The Latino vote is harder to appeal to today because it is no longer dominated by a single group -- Puerto Rican Americans -- but by a more diverse group of immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America.
New York Republicans also have lacked a statewide elected official for eight years who could project a moderate image for them. The result is that state Republicans are being defined by the more conservative Washington Republicans, who have a hard line on immigration, Gyory said.
Cuomo and his running mate, ex-Rep. Kathy Hochul, have lined up most other Latino Democrats in the Legislature and the leaders of several Hispanic advocacy groups in a massive endorsement of nearly 20 leaders. They include Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president and the senator's son.
"Andrew Cuomo and Kathy Hochul have outlined a strong agenda on the issues that not only concern Latinos, such as passing the Dream Act, but all New Yorkers," Diaz Jr. said. "I am proud to support Gov. Cuomo for re-election."