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Hartford - U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy is stepping up his courtship of Latino voters, a fast-growing population the Democrat is counting on in a tight race for U.S. Senate.
Murphy's campaign is planning Spanish-language advertisements and he says he will be a regular visitor to Latino neighborhoods between now and the Nov. 6 election, aiming to build support among a minority group that accounts for 9 percent of the state's electorate.
While Latino voters tilt Democratic, their votes are hardly a lock for Murphy. More than 71,000 of the state's estimated 176,700 registered Latino voters are unaffiliated, and community leaders say they are struck by how little either candidate - Murphy or his Republican opponent, Linda McMahon - have reached out to the Spanish-speaking population.
Murphy also is still trying to build name recognition. As he shook hands with bakery and cafe owners Thursday along Park Street in Hartford, Murphy was introduced in Spanish by the city's Puerto Rico-born mayor, Pedro Segarra, and the U.S. Caribbean territory's delegate to Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, who were campaigning on his behalf.
He is casting his better-funded rival as an out-of-touch millionaire as he pursues voters in Connecticut, which has one of the nation's highest rates of Latino unemployment. The state also has the largest gap between the scores of high- and low-achieving students, reflecting large disparities in wealth.
"We need support for the middle class and the poor who are trying to make it," he said.
A spokesman for McMahon said her message for Latinos is the same as other voters.
"Her message for Hispanic voters is exactly the same as every other voter in Connecticut, and that is her jobs plan," spokesman Todd Abrajano said. "Hispanic voters are no different from other folks in the state. Everybody needs a job. Everybody could use a few more dollars in their pocket especially in this economic situation we're in today."
Polls suggest that Murphy, a three-term congressman who represents northwest Connecticut, is neck-and-neck with McMahon, a former wrestling executive, even though President Barack Obama holds a comfortable lead over Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the Democratic-leaning state.
Julian Pelaez, a 49-year-old Colombia native who held a sign supporting Murphy outside his cafe, said he believes the Democrat cares more about the Hispanic community.
Jewelry store clerk Nyasia Lopez, 19, said she is supporting Obama, but she doesn't know much about Murphy. All she remembered hearing about the Senate candidates was that McMahon had brought jobs to Connecticut through her family's wrestling business.
"I haven't heard much about him," she said.
Murphy said he plans to begin advertising next week in Spanish-language media. Abrajano declined to comment on whether the McMahon campaign is advertising on Spanish-language radio or television. Some observers, however, say such advertising has been conspicuous in its absence.
"With a few weeks away, I have to admit, I'm not getting a good sense that folks are really reaching out to this community," said Warren Pena, a Norwalk city councilman who arranged a Democratic rally last weekend to try to stir more excitement among Hispanic voters.
Some Latino supporters of McMahon say she is a role model who knows the value of hard work.
"She has been in everybody's shoes. She's been from the ground, not having anything, to being very rich," said Ruby Barba, a 43-year-old owner of a modeling company in West Hartford who is originally from Panama.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill estimated this week that 90,012 Hispanics are registered as Democrats, compared to 14,449 Republican. Only about half of the eligible Latino voters are registered, and half of those actually cast ballots, she said.