Texas Gov. George W. Bush is defending his record of reaching out to Hispanic voters even as he is being criticized for bypassing the annual convention of the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights advocacy group.
Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said the Republican presidential front-runner was unable to attend the National Council of La Raza convention because he was vacationing in Maine with his family.
"We are disappointed," La Raza president Raul Yzaguirre said Monday. "Some of our people are a little angry he didn't show up. If he's taking us for granted, he is misreading our community."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona was the only Republican presidential candidate to accept an invitation to address the conference, held in Bush's home state of Texas.
He told the convention that he won more than 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in his last election. "I'm proud, but I'm not satisfied with that number. I want all their votes. Their support is my honor," he said.
Pressing for campaign finance reform as he actively courted the Hispanic vote, McCain said special interests and the "preeminence of money over ideas" run counter to the values of the Hispanic community.
"You are the backbone of our country," he told the group.
Asked about Bush's absence, the Arizona senator said, "I really have no thoughts about it."
Bush enjoyed strong Hispanic support in his last gubernatorial election, and Tucker said that the Texas governor had visited Hispanic communities during campaign stops in Detroit, San Diego and Iowa.
"His record of educating every child rebuilding America's defenses and restoring dignity and honor to the White House is resonating with Hispanic voters," she said.
GOP presidential rival Elizabeth Dole also cited a scheduling conflict that prevented her from attending the conference.
On the Democratic side, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley also cited a scheduling conflict, while Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to speak here Wednesday.
This isn't the first time Bush has run into complaints from minorities that he's ignoring them.
Bush made a last-minute appearance at the recent Unity conference of black, Latino, Asian and American Indian journalists in Seattle after initially declining an invitation to speak even though he was scheduled to be in Seattle at the time on other business.
Yzaguirre said he was bothered that Bush did not attend other Latino events. Bush skipped the recent gathering of the League of the United Latin American Citizens, which was also in his home state, and of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Philadelphia.
"The fact he has missed a lot of Latino events is troublesome," Yzaguirre said.
On Monday La Raza officials released a report saying hate crimes against Hispanics are on the rise and underscore a troubling pattern of harassment against the nation's fastest-growing minority grup by law enforcement officials and extremists.
"Private citizens and law enforcement officials feel they can harass or attack Hispanic-Americans with almost complete impunity," Yzaguirre said.
To reduce hate crimes, La Raza is advocating the passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999 and extensive training of local law enforcement officials in how to identify and respond to hate violence.