By Cameron Joseph - 08/27/12 09:00 AM EDT
Republicans this week will look to push the reset button with Hispanic voters by featuring a slew of prominent Latino GOP speakers in Tampa.
The Republicans’ goal, according to a top campaign official, is to win 38 percent of the Hispanic vote on Election Day.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a home-state favorite, will introduce Romney on the convention’s final night. And Ann Romney will be preceded by Lucé Vela Gutiérrez, Puerto Rico’s first lady on Tuesday.
Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Texas Senate hopeful Ted Cruz will also speak.
“There are Hispanic-specific events every day at the convention,” said Jose Fuentes, a co-chairman of Romney’s national Hispanic leadership team and former Puerto Rico attorney general. “I don’t think you’ve ever in the past seen a Republican convention where so many primetime speakers are Hispanics.”
Fuentes told The Hill of the campaign’s 38 percent goal, 7 percent higher than the 31 percent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pulled in 2008 and a slight decrease from the approximately 40 percent former President George W. Bush won in 2004.
That number could be difficult to reach: President Obama led Romney by 63 to 28 percent with Hispanic voters in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll released last week.
Republican strategists admitted that 38 percent is a lofty goal, but said if Romney could get to one-third of the Hispanic vote, that would still give him a chance to win in the key swing states of Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
Earlier this year, Romney said that failure to whittle away at the president's popularity among Hispanic voters “spells doom for us.”
“The GOP needs Hispanics to win this election,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. “I think the convention can a long way toward fixing problems created in the primaries. The right faces, the right messages and some movement on immigration policy would help a lot.”
But that could prove tricky for a party facing a deep internal rift on the issue, which Romney ran hard to the right on during the primary. While polls show Latinos care more about jobs and education, immigration remains a “gateway issue,” as GOP strategist Ford O’Connell put it.
“They’re going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat with Hispanics, particularly in the Southwest, if they want to win,” he said. “If they think that you are completely disagreeable on that issue, they’re not going to listen to anything else.”
Obama’s executive order to halt deportations on some undocumented immigrants brought here at a young age helped improve his standing with Latinos and undercut a push by Rubio to craft a GOP alternative version of the DREAM Act.
Romney was left struggling to explain whether he’d uphold the executive order.
While he has softened his rhetoric on immigration since the primary, some in his party haven’t followed suit, and any insensitive remarks from supporters at the convention could hamper the former Massachusetts governor’s chances.
Last Tuesday, the GOP platform committee added tough language to the official party position, including a statement that controversial immigration laws like Arizona’s should be “encouraged, not attacked.”
“Not a good sign,” McKinnon said when asked about the party platform’s language. The provisions were approved by a wide margin after being suggested by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the co-author of the Arizona law and early Romney backer who informally advises him on immigration policy.
On Thursday, Kobach, the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA and 10 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, including their union’s president, brought a lawsuit against Obama’s executive order.
Kobach told The Hill that he’d been in contact with the Romney campaign about the lawsuit and that it hadn’t expressed any opinion.
NumbersUSA President Roy Beck said Romney should say where he stands.
“We’d like to see presidential nominee Romney say he supports the lawsuit and that he’d suspend this program if elected,” he said.
Romney’s campaign issued a somewhat vague statement last week on the lawsuit that attacked Obama’s leadership on immigration matters.
Fuentes, meanwhile, acknowledged that the Romney campaign had a lot of ground to make up with Hispanic voters — but argued that he could close the gap.
“It is true that the Obama campaign has had kind of a free ride for the last few months because we are constrained by the legal limitations of not being the official candidate of the party yet,” he said. “That will change on Thursday.”
While declining to offer specifics, Fuentes said that “very aggressive messaging on the ground will be in full swing” during the convention, with Spanish-language events every day on top of the number of prominent Latino speakers, and a “very aggressive media campaign” aimed at Hispanic voters shortly thereafter.
Voter turnout is also key. Even if Obama wins a huge majority of the Latino vote, it won’t help him if the total turnout of Latino voters is much lower than in 2008. There are warning signs of that in the NBC/WSJ/Telemundo poll, which showed just 42 percent of Hispanics are “very interested” in voting, down from 59 percent at this point four years ago.
“There’s a distaste for Obama’s leadership … going into the fall the economic issue is going to be the main driver for Hispanic families,” said GOP pollster Leslie Sanchez, who said Romney and outside groups should “hit them with the truth” in ads laying out the bleak economic picture.
Romney’s first Spanish-language ad, which debuted two weeks ago, called Obama a disappointment and pointed out that the Latino unemployment rate is higher than 10 percent.
Romney has already surpassed McCain in terms of Hispanic outreach — bilingual phone banks run by his campaign and the Republican National Committee have so far made more than 10 million voter contacts, according to a GOP source. Yet, Obama’s campaign has also been heavily targeting Latino voters, and outspent Romney by a wide margin this summer on Spanish-language television and radio.
Romney has done some, but not many, campaign appearances with Latino voters.
Fuentes argued that many Hispanics are just starting to tune in to the election, and that the Obama campaign’s big summer push with Latinos hadn’t moved the needle much.
“Our work is pretty much cut out for us in terms of being able to present Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to the Hispanic community — they don’t know these two guys — and then explaining why Gov. Romney would be a better president for them,” he said.