Strategists: Romney needs Hispanic VP

Mitt Romney has a big Latino voter problem and should choose a Hispanic to be his vice presidential running mate, according to some GOP strategists.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is loved by the Tea Party, is on every strategist’s list; New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) have also been mentioned as choices for Romney. 

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Non-Hispanics on the vice presidential list include Tea Party favorites like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and regionally popular governors like Virginia's Bob McDonnell (R), but strategists suggest choosing a Hispanic would be the best route.

“A Republican ticket needs to be as historic as the ticket it’s running against, and that argues for a Hispanic, a Rubio or Martinez or someone else who transforms the Republican Party. You want somebody who’d add something,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, a top Romney consultant in 2008. “Whoever the GOP nominee is, Obama is going to deliver the base. You don’t necessarily need one of the leaders of the conservative cause to do that for you. ”

Hispanics are by far the fastest-growing segment of the population and are a key voting bloc in many swing states including Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

This presents a problem for Romney, who has staked out a hard-right position on immigration in the primary, calling for all undocumented immigrants to leave the country and strongly opposing the DREAM Act, which would give some immigrants brought here illegally at a young age a path to citizenship.

Rubio recently proposed the idea of a stripped-down DREAM Act, which some Republicans hope will neutralize the issue on the campaign trail: The original included a path to citizenship for those who joined the military or attended college, while Rubio's rough plan would allow people to stay in the United States without giving them "amnesty," as he put it.

Romney, in a debate, indicated that he could support a version of the DREAM Act that had only the military component.

A recent national poll from Fox News had President Obama leading Romney among Hispanic voters by 70 percent to 14, a number that, if it holds, all but guarantees Obama’s reelection. Bush received approximately 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, while McCain received 31 percent despite his longtime support of immigration reform, which many strategists say cost him many Western states.

“If Romney could use an Etch a Sketch anywhere, it’s with Hispanics,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “When they start vetting [possible running mates], they have to start with the Hispanics and go from there. He’s really hurt himself with Hispanics in this primary.”

Romney’s campaign has refused to speculate about whom he might choose as a possible vice presidential candidate, although a person close to Romney’s campaign told The Hill this week that Rubio and Martinez would likely be on his shortlist.

That person also said that anyone with a “heavy Bush accent” wouldn’t be included on the list because Romney wants to avoid being tied to former President George W. Bush — a move that would preclude former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who is married to a Hispanic woman, as well as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a close Romney ally who was Bush’s budget director.

Romney listed Sandoval, Martinez and Rubio along with other Hispanic Republicans at a January GOP debate in Las Vegas as people he'd consider for a high-level position in his presidency.

“We’re blessed to have an enormous number of highly qualified Hispanic Americans in the Republican Party and leadership right now," Romney said. “These members can form membership in our Cabinet, I believe, and potentially. .. some other positions as well."

Some of the candidates on his shortlist have denied any interest.

“I'm not going to be the vice presidential nominee,” Rubio said Wednesday on MSNBC, the latest in a series of strong denials that he is interested.

When told he might be able to accomplish more as a vice president than as a senator, he laughed. “You think so? That's debatable,” Rubio said.

His office refuses to discuss the speculation, even privately.

Martinez, similarly, has sought to tamp down such interest — her office has not returned calls from numerous news outlets inquiring into the matter. Sandoval has softly denied interest: A spokesman told Buzzfeed this week that he “has made it very clear he's running for reelection in 2014.”

Sandoval endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) early on and has not backed Romney, and he raised taxes as governor, which has drawn scorn from conservative groups.

Some strategists told The Hill that Martinez might be the strongest pick since she is Mexican-American, while Rubio is Cuban-American, and has sky-high approval ratings in her home state of New Mexico, a pivotal swing state in the general election.

Of the non-Hispanic candidates, others said that McDonnell, who’s endorsed Romney and hasn’t closed the door on taking the VP slot, wouldn’t be a great pick because he’s too similar to Romney both in his appearance and with the type of voters he appeals to, and wouldn’t help Romney much outside of Virginia.

The strategist close to Romney said that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a favorite of Washington conservatives who endorsed Romney on Friday, could be considered but is “probably too wonky.”

Other candidates who have been mentioned include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who has strongly backed Romney but even more strongly said he will refuse the vice presidential slot, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R). Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who is Indian-American, was also mentioned, but most strategists say his poor Republican response speech to Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address badly damaged his chances.

Time and again, strategists circled back to Romney’s Hispanic problem — and said that while the decision is his, they hope he will find a Latino running mate.

“It’s not just about 2012, it’s about the future of the Republican Party,” O’Connell said. “If you don’t make inroads with Hispanics now, I think the Republican Party could be wiped off the map for 20 years.”

This post was updated at 9:24 p.m. on April 2.