By Juan Williams - 08/30/12 04:00 AM EDT
In 2004, President George W. Bush got 44 percent of the Latino vote and won the election. Four years ago, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got 31 percent of the Latino vote and lost the election decisively.
Now, as Republicans hold their 2012 convention in Tampa, Fla., a city with a large Latino population, the Latino vote is again setting the beat for the election. GOP insiders here are heatedly debating how Mitt Romney can get back to President Bush’s level of support from Latinos.
According to an August poll by NBC News, The Wall Street Journal and Telemundo, Latinos prefer President Obama over Mitt Romney in the presidential election, 63 to 28 percent.
The poll also found that nearly 6 in 10 Hispanic voters said Romney was “out of step with most Americans’ thinking” on issues of national importance. Even though Hispanics face disproportionately high levels of unemployment and underemployment, nearly 6 in 10 Hispanic voters also say they approve of President Obama’s handling of the economy.
The GOP’s main strategy for attracting Latinos at this convention has been to feature prominent Republican Latinos. Puerto Rico’s first lady, Lucé Vela, introduced Ann Romney on Tuesday night. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will introduce Mitt Romney for his speech Thursday night.
Prime-time speaking slots here feature three more prominent GOP Latinos, Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Luis Fortuño of Puerto Rico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada.
Another part of the strategy is to focus on high levels of unemployment in the Latino community — on the theory that everyone wants a better economy.
But as Rubio told me in an interview for Fox News Latino earlier this year: “It is hard to make the economic argument to people who think you want to deport their grandmother.”
The pragmatic message to current Republicans is that Latinos have been the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population for the last decade. They are projected to make up between 10 and 15 percent of all voters this November.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is married to a Latina, has taken the lead by highlighting the need for Republicans to embrace the growing Latino population and its voting power.
“You can’t ask people to join your cause and then send a signal that you’re really not wanted. It just doesn’t work,” Bush said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last weekend.
But the GOP platform for this convention has not improved relations with Latinos.
It calls for undocumented workers to engage in “self-deportation.” It argues for a national version of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. And it opposes in-state tuition at state universities for children of illegal immigrants.
In addition, the author of Arizona’s controversial “papers please” law, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is a prominent adviser to the Romney campaign. The chairman of Romney’s presidential campaign in California is former Gov. Pete Wilson. He is best known for championing the controversial Proposition 187, which denied state services to illegal immigrants and was later overturned by the courts.
By contrast, the Democratic convention next week will be chaired by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The keynote address will be given by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
The convention comes just two weeks after the federal government began taking applications from younger illegal immigrants seeking relief from deportation — a result of Obama’s executive order offering temporary work permits to those enrolled in college or enlisted in the military.
Obama used his executive power to implement this provision of the DREAM Act after it had been blocked repeatedly by Republicans in Congress. Mitt Romney said that he would have vetoed the DREAM Act, and Paul Ryan voted against it in 2010.
At a time when Republicans should be embracing the pragmatism and inclusion of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, they are doubling down on the rigid immigration posture of Kris Kobach, Pete Wilson and Arizona laws that alienate Hispanics.
Even if Romney wins this election, the GOP’s troubled relationship with Latino voters at the Tampa convention is flashing like a road sign, warning of serious trouble ahead.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.