GOP stumbles in outreach to Hispanic voters

McClatchy NewspapersMay 8, 2012 

— It was supposed to be introducing the team whose savvy grass-roots work will sway Hispanic voters to the Republican Party in six very different battleground states. Instead, the Republican National Committee demonstrated Tuesday how far behind it is in persuading Latino voters to pick former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama.

The GOP’s effort overall and in the six states in particular – Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia – will focus on jobs and the economy, said the Republicans’ top Hispanic outreach director, Bettina Inclan. But when Inclan was asked what the GOP would tell people about Romney’s tough immigration talk, she demonstrated the party’s chief weakness with Hispanic voters:

Romney is "still deciding what his position on immigration is," Inclan said.

Another top RNC official, Kirsten Kukowski, interrupted the meeting to say that Romney’s position on immigration is, in fact, very clear. After the meeting, Inclan tweeted that she "misspoke," and she posted a link to the immigration policy page on the Romney campaign website.

“The first act of an immigrant should not be an illegal one,” the Web page says, in part. Romney “believes there should be no special path to citizenship. Everyone who wants to come to the United States should have to follow the same channels as everyone else. . . . Everyone should be welcome to come to the United States but they need to do it correctly, as have countless generations of Americans before us.”

Democrats, though, were happy to step in with their own definition of Romney’s immigration policy. That includes pledging to veto the DREAM Act – a proposal that allows young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children through no fault of their own to stay if they attend college or join the military – and his assertion during a January debate in Florida that undocumented immigrants should "self-deport." He also called parts of Arizona’s disputed immigration law a model for the nation "and has paraded around the country with the nation’s leading anti-immigrant voices," said Gabriela Domenzain, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign.

Over the past year, Romney has "proven time and time again that he is the most extreme presidential candidate in modern history on immigration," she said. "His position may be inconvenient, but it has been clear. Mitt Romney has decided to be the most extreme presidential candidate on immigration; Hispanics and all Americans have heard it loud and clear."

Inclan noted that Hispanics don’t vote as a monolith, and that to assume that immigration is the only thing Latino voters care about is "almost insulting."

Most polls bear that out. Few Hispanic voters define immigration as an issue of top concern, in part because 74 percent of Latinos in this country are citizens. But immigration is a symbolic issue for many, who see the Republican approach to the matter as reflecting the party’s respect for the wider Hispanic community. Many in particular are concerned about Romney’s opposition to the DREAM Act.

Kukowski urged reporters to put the remarks in context: Romney has only just emerged as the Republicans’ likely nominee, and the RNC and his campaign are just beginning to coordinate, she said. That only underscored the GOP’s late start in reaching out to Hispanic voters: On Tuesday the Obama campaign released the second in a series of Spanish-language television and radio ads that are airing in Nevada, Colorado and Florida.

Republicans have been looking for ways to repeat their success among Hispanic voters in 2004, when President George W. Bush garnered 44 percent of the Latino vote. Obama captured 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, a feat he’s looking to replicate next fall.

So far, many of those voters are still in his corner, despite some disappointments, including the president’s failed campaign promise on comprehensive immigration restructuring. The administration also has deported a record number of illegal immigrants.

Yet registered Hispanic voters back Obama by 67 percent to 27 percent, according to a mid-April poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Those findings were consistent with a Pew Hispanic Center survey of 557 Latino registered voters in December, when 68 percent backed Obama and 23 percent Romney.

So how will Republicans close that gap? Said Inclan: "We have six months."

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