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  1. Florida Politics

Mitt Romney's convention speakers belie GOP reality with Hispanics

Published Aug. 28, 2012

TAMPA — Tune in to the Republican National Convention at 9 tonight and you'll see the face of the GOP is Hispanic.

Five of nine scheduled speakers are Hispanic, including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, then Wednesday, Gov. Luis Fortuño of Puerto Rico and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico are on, and Thursday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio introduces Mitt Romney.

The problem for Republicans is the diversity at the Tampa Bay Times Forum podium this week belies political reality.

Romney is far behind President Barack Obama among Hispanic voters, and his campaign so far has shown little interest in aggressively courting that vote. Party leaders fret that unless they reverse current trends, the long-term implications are dire as white voters represent a shrinking share of the electorate.

"If you're going backwards with a growing population, you're in trouble. I fear, long term, the Republican Party will end up being a regional party," said former state Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami. "After this election, you're skating on some thin ice."

Republican strategist Karl Rove echoed that sentiment Monday at a POLITICO/Tampa Bay Times breakfast forum. "I'm concerned about the Hispanic vote long term," he said. "The Republican Party can't do with a dynamic, growing part of the electorate what it's done with African-Americans or we might find ourselves at a point where we get 5 percent and we consider ourselves fortunate, where we're thrilled if we get 10 percent, and we're ecstatic if we get 13 or 14 percent."

The implications are high for November, but far higher down the road.

Hispanics are the country's fastest-growing demographic. In 1990, there were 22 million in the United States. Today, there are 50.5 million, and by 2030 there will be an estimated 78 million, representing 22 percent of the overall population.

The latest national poll, conducted by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo, showed Obama with a 63 percent to 28 percent lead over Romney with Hispanic voters. In Florida, the latest Quinnipiac poll shows Obama winning by 30 percentage points, double the margin of Hispanic voters he won four years ago.

As much as party leaders stress the need to appeal to Hispanic voters, the base doesn't always fall in line. It has pushed candidates such as Romney into hard-line positions on issues like immigration that can antagonize Latinos with harsh rhetoric.

"The Republican primary I think was one where the tone on immigration sent a pretty negative signal to immigrant groups — and people related to immigrants," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "All Hispanic voters are looking for is some sense of respect and understanding of their aspirations."

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, is poised to adopt a platform that embraces many of the positions Romney took in the primary to take down rivals such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry by casting him as soft on illegal immigration. Among the planks: increase border fencing, oppose in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants and promote strict immigration laws like those in Arizona.

"George W. Bush showed that a Republican who reaches out and asks for Hispanic support and assiduously courts it can do very well. George W. Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally according to exit polls in 2004," noted Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "It's entirely possible for Republican, conservative candidates to do very well in the Hispanic community. … We can count. We did not flunk arithmetic, and we will do better in the future."

The challenge ironically occurs as the GOP has plenty to boast about — five Hispanic governors or U.S. senators — Rubio and Cruz (soon enough), and Sandoval of Nevada, Martinez of New Mexico, and Fortuño of Puerto Rico.

Democrats have only one Hispanic in high office, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

"We've done a lousy job of bragging on it. And we need to do a better job of bragging on the successes that we've had," said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus.

Former Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas, now head of the American Conservative Union, said promoting high-profile Republicans will pay off. "This convention will be a big deal in improving our perception in the Hispanic community," he said.

Obama is winning the race on the ground, outpacing voter outreach by Republicans, and in the air.

Obama's campaign has been going door to door in Hispanic hotbeds in Florida, Colorado and Nevada. Romney has a presence in those states as well (including 13 people working on Hispanic outreach in Florida) but even some people close to the operation say it has been underwhelming.

On TV, Obama and his allies have spent $6.6 million on Hispanic-focused ads so far; Romney and the GOP, less than $1 million, according to Democratic media watchers.

Romney officials promise a more visible effort once he can access general election funds, which happens when he accepts the nomination Thursday.

On Monday, the campaign released a radio ad featuring Romney's Spanish-speaking son, Craig, who noted that his grandfather was born in Mexico. But some Republicans fret the effort could be too late.

"The clock is ticking," said Miami Republican consultant Ana Navarro, who advised John McCain's effort in 2008. "The numbers are consistent and troubling, and the window of time to make a dent in them is growing smaller by the day."

Republicans vehemently resist the notion they are writing off the Hispanic vote and said efforts already under way have not yet shown up in opinion polls, including hundreds of thousands of phone calls to Hispanics in battleground states and a Spanish-language website, juntosconro mney.com.

Overall, Romney's campaign is banking that Hispanics will be drawn to the same message as any other voter, that he offers a way out of the tough economy. Hispanics suffer higher unemployment rates than whites. And despite overwhelming support for Obama, there is a turnout question.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll showed that 61 percent of Latinos have a high level of enthusiasm for the election, 20 points off the average for all voters and significantly lower than 2008.

"I think we will for the first time in modern history see the absolute numbers of Latino voters flat line or maybe even slightly decline from where it was in 2008," Rove said. "They're sitting there saying, 'For 3½ years we've been listening to your promises and it hasn't worked out for us.' "

Jeb Bush, who met his wife in Mexico and is bilingual, is not overly pessimistic about the party's ability to appeal to Latinos.

"It just requires some attention and some effort, and frankly it needs to be done state by state, community by community as much as it is done from the national party. You go to Texas and the tone Gov. Perry sets is not an anti-Hispanic tone at all," Bush said.

"Texas will be a blue state if Hispanics decide cumulatively they will abandon Republicans as an alternative."

Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com.

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