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Muchas Gracias por las Botas!

A la Bush and Kerry, Allen recognizes the power of Hispanics. "Clearly it's a growing constituency," says John Reid, Allen's director of communications.

And how. It's the largest minority in the United States. One in three Hispanics will start their own business, says Rubio, a chamber board member. And Virginia ranks 10th nationwide in Hispanic-owned businesses.

Everyone here seems to know that. At one table of 10, the networkers include representatives of two churches, Bon Air Baptist and the West End Assembly of God.

"West End is a big missions church, so it's only natural that we would come here," says Sharon Lewis, director of recreation ministries, "because we want to be more involved with the community."

Jose Quesada, three seats over, and his colleague Oscar Salazar just opened a department specializing in service to Hispanics at the Pence Nissan dealership. "We're trying to have a place where they can go and feel comfortable," says Quesada, whose family is from Costa Rica.

Also at the table: reps from the local office of the National Kidney Foundation (minorities are more at risk for kidney disease) and the Virginia Department of Correctional Education.

"The Hispanic population is getting the attention of everyone," Rubio says. And politicians "realize how important this vote is."

He points out that Gov. Mark Warner delivered the keynote address at the chamber's first awards gala at the Richmond Marriott in February. Warner also created the Latino Advisory Commission, which is expected to present a final report Sept. 1.

But today is for a Republican, who is well received — even with his California-turned-Southern stab at speaking Spanish.

La Siesta owner Michel Zajur, president of the chamber, introduces Allen, presenting him with plants in pots shaped like Allen's famed boots.

"Muchas gracias por las botas," Allen says, slowly and deliberately, to laughs and applause. Then he notes that the name of his tour, "Common Sense," doesn't translate. His daughter, he boasts, will enter a Spanish immersion course in first grade this fall — in hopes of becoming bilingual by the sixth grade.

Allen hits his talking points, among them: education as the way to create equal opportunities, cutting taxes to help small businesses and the importance of health-care savings accounts. When he's done, he receives a standing ovation.

Next stop: Nacho Mama's Restaurant, owned by Raul Cantu.

"The Hispanic population is growing," Rubio says, "and everyone wants a piece of it." — jason Roop

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