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Asian-American Vote Crucial in Some Key States

Asian Americans make up just five percent of the U.S. population, but they may play an important role in Tuesday's presidential election in such key states such as Virginia and Nevada. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, both major political parties and community activists are working to get out the Asian American vote.

UCLA Asian-American Studies Center Director Don Nakanishi says Asian-American voters are important to both presidential campaigns.

"Asian Americans now number nearly 15 million across the country, and they are concentrated in electorally rich states - California, New York, Texas, as well as in Hawaii, New Jersey, and places like Virginia," Nakanishi said.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders total five percent of the population of Virginia and six percent in Nevada. Both are hotly contested states in this election, and under the U.S. presidential election system individual state votes decide the winner.

In California, Asian Americans are 12 percent of the population, with heavy concentrations in places like Westminster. This city of 90,000 is home to an immigrant neighborhood called Little Saigon.

A recent festival and parade offered both parties a chance to get out their message. Volunteers handed out balloons with campaign fliers, and local politicians took part in the parade.

Vietnamese immigrant Tri Ta is a Westminster city councilman and supporter of Republican presidential candidate John McCain. He says for him and others in his community, issues in their homeland are important.

"We are really concerned with issues of human rights and democracy," he said. "That is one of the top concerns that the Vietnamese-American community has."

He says McCain, who was a prisoner during the Vietnam War, understands Vietnam's communist government and knows how to deal with it.

A survey of Asian-American voters released in early October showed that two-thirds of Vietnamese Americans support McCain, but other Asian Americans preferred Barack Obama by varying margins. Chinese, Japanese and Indian Americans backed Obama by more than a three to one ratio. Filipino and Korean Americans also supported Obama over McCain, but by a narrower margin.

The study found that among Asian-Americans, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a two to one. But half of Asian-American voters are non-partisan or independent.

Both parties are reaching out to Asian-Pacific voters. Their efforts are limited by the problem of dealing with multiple languages. Asian-American volunteers are helping. Vietnamese-American Lily Nguyen supports Democrat Barack Obama for president and backs local Democratic candidates in the city of Garden Grove, California. She says ethnic voters must make their voices heard.

"You know, we have a small ethnic community group here and we have another small community, ethnic group there," she said. "How can we make sure that they are all involved?"

Nguyen came to a local park to canvass for her Democratic member of Congress, Loretta Sanchez, a Latina whose political support cuts across ethnic lines.

Independent Asian-American organizations are also helping with the effort to get out the vote. Lisa Thong of the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment oversees a telephone information line, where volunteers answer voter questions.

"About what to do if you want to vote by mail, if you have not received your voting information what you should do," she said. "We are answering all types of questions in English and Mandarin and Cantonese."

Housewife Christine Lai is responding to the phone calls. An immigrant from Taiwan, she says Asian-American voters are interested in the election.

"Especially since right now, people know how important voting is to make power in the Asian community and make change," she said.

Don Nakanishi of UCLA says many Asian Americans are recent immigrants and are new to the U.S. political process. But he says that year by year, more are getting active in politics.

"Whether that is in terms of getting people to register to vote and to actually vote, whether it means contributing to candidates in terms of monetary contributions, or more importantly, I think for Asian Americans, for Asian Americans to actually be encouraged and to feel confident enough to run for political office," he said.

Nakanishi's center compiles an annual list of Asian Americans who hold major elected or appointed office. He says the number has grown to more than 2,000 office holders in 38 states.

Many Asian-American voters have been slow to make a decision on the presidential election. The recent survey showed that in the past month of the campaign, one third were undecided. The study showed that 80 percent of Asian Americans who are likely voters list the economy as a pressing problem, followed by the war in Iraq.