WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio may have said it best himself, when talking about what he could bring to the ticket as one of Mitt Romney’s potential vice-presidential running mates: "Presidential campaigns are won by the presidential nominee."
Rising Republican star though he may be, the Florida senator’s national appeal may be tepid among the Hispanic voters both parties are courting so desperately this election year. Whoever wins the presidential election will do so in part by winning over a majority of the estimated 12 million registered Latino voters. About two in three of them who went to the polls in 2008 voted for President Barack Obama.
But it’s unlikely those voters would be more likely to support Romney merely because he has a Latino running mate, said Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, which conducted a widely cited poll of Hispanic voters in January for Univision and other media outlets.
"We don’t have any evidence that he would provide any significant boost to Romney if he were on the ticket," Barreto said, noting that the poll found that Rubio did best in Florida with first- and second-generation Cuban-Americans, but was less popular with Hispanic voters who had roots in Puerto Rico, Colombia and Mexico.
"He’s not going to be the type of candidate who can go out and resonate with the Mexican-American audiences in the Southwest," Barreto said.
Outside of Florida, Rubio may be gaining popularity but still isn’t that well-known yet.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found that voters in the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania were far more likely to support their hometown politicians as vice presidential contenders. In Florida, they support Rubio. In Ohio, it’s Republican Sen. Bob Portman. And in Pennsylvania, voters like neighboring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the most as a possible VP.
It’s not clear how much Rubio helps Romney in Florida, either. A mid-April poll by Public Policy Polling of North Carolina found that with Rubio on the ticket, Romney drops in Florida from 45 percent to 43 percent. Obama stays at 50 percent, PPP pollster Tom Jensen wrote.
Among Hispanics in Florida, the pollsters found that Obama leads 52 percent to 37 percent with Hispanics. With Rubio on the ticket, Obama still leads 52 to 37 with Hispanics.
George W. Bush garnered 40 and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally in 2000 and 2004.
Whether Romney’s potential vice-presidential running mates are likely to appeal to Hispanic voters or not, they’ll get a more thorough vetting this year than in 2008, thanks to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s last-minute pick of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The Florida Democratic Party has been salivating over the possibility of such a high-profile target as Rubio, releasing daily rundowns of news reports about the senator. They include rehashing Rubio’s personal use of the Republican Party of Florida’s credit card, campaign finance irregularities and his friendship with U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., whom state officials cleared of wrongdoing despite a scathing investigative report of his own campaign-finance practices.
Rubio has been on an aggressive public relations push, giving speeches on foreign affairs and appearing on television regularly. He plans to release his memoir June 19, the same date that a Washington Post reporter will publish a biography on him.
Rubio has said repeatedly that he won’t talk about the vice-presidential job. He’s said it’s Romney’s decision.
Whether he’s picked or not, the attention from the selection process has made Rubio more of a national figure positioned to use his popularity, fundraising skills and high profile to help elect Romney. He says he plans to do just that this election year, especially when it comes to reaching out to Hispanic voters.
Rubio is "someone we want to use as much as possible," said Alexandra Franceschi of the Republican National Committee, and not just because he could appeal to Hispanic voters.
"He’s a very effective speaker. He’s incredibly charismatic and thoughtful," she said. "And his personal narrative really plays into why so many Hispanics have come to this country: to secure the American dream. That’s his appeal to a broad range of Americans, not just Hispanics."
Rubio recently has previewed pieces of an immigration overhaul package, in part to allay criticism of the Republican Party’s language on the subject. Like the DREAM Act, supported by many Democrats and President Obama, Rubio’s proposal would allow young people who came to the United States illegally with their parents as children to stay in this country. Unlike the DREAM Act, it wouldn’t provide a direct path to citizenship.
Although Obama also has failed to act on his 2008 campaign promise of comprehensive immigration revisions, those active in Hispanic politics say the rhetoric on immigration during the Republican presidential primaries was more disheartening.
Hispanic voters don’t consider immigration their most pressing concern; most polls find that Latino voters are most interested in jobs and education. But by refusing even to consider the DREAM Act, Republicans have said they don’t value the young Hispanic people it would cover, said Fernando Romero, who heads up Hispanics in Politics, a nonpartisan political organization in Nevada.
"The DREAM Act involves a crop of just really good children, a crop most parents would want," he said. "It’s a symbol, at least for many of us, it symbolizes the best of the best. And yet we have a party that is not accepting that. Until they do, we’re not going to buy into many of the things they have to offer."
Some disagree, including Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the director of immigration for the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights organization. Rubio’s willingness to work on immigration matters may help mend fences with some, even if Hispanics fundamentally disagree with him on other issues that are important to their community, she said. Because the Republican Party’s approach to the DREAM Act reflects how it feels about the Hispanic community as a whole, she said, if Rubio can successfully repair that, he might make a difference in attracting voters to the GOP.
"Immigration is still a very powerful issue," she said. "In the context of Rubio in particular, it was very much appreciated when he started calling for a toning down of the issue. It’s always a good thing when you have elected officials doing that, in particular in the Republican Party, in calling his own colleagues to do so."
Don’t count on it, said Romero, who thinks Republicans already may have lost the battle for Hispanic voters next fall.
"Things have been said; things have been done. Things are being said still," he said. "It’s surprising, because at a time Republicans could have brought on board many, many Hispanics, they didn’t. And they didn’t care. It’s not like they didn’t know what they’re doing. They just didn’t care."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @erikabolstad