Democrats making hard sell to Latino voters

Conventions are all about sending a message.

The 2012 Democratic convention’s chairman is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Its keynote speaker – and breakout star – is San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

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Latino, black and white speakers have mentioned that President Obama appointed the first Hispanic justice to the United States Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. The two Latinos in the Obama cabinet have addressed the convention, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

And Rep. Luiz Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who pushed the president to stop deporting young Hispanics who came here as children, also had a prime spot on the convention stage.

As the Democrats leave Charlotte, this convention’s message is clear – President Obama wants and needs to energize Latino turnout to win this fall.

An August poll taken by NBC News, The Wall Street Journal and Telemundo found Latinos prefer President Obama over Mitt Romney by 35 points, 63 to 28 percent. But 14 percent of Hispanic voters remain undecided, according to a new Zogby poll.

The display of Latino political muscle at this convention is a clear indication that the Obama campaign is intent on winning those votes and stretching its lead, especially in swing states such as Colorado, Nevada and Florida.

In the 2008 election, 10.2 million Latinos cast their votes — a 25 percent increase over the 2004 figure, and the highest ever for Latinos in the United States.  Obama won nearly 70 percent of their votes.

But times have changed in the Latino community.

In this election many Hispanic voters are rightly asking the president and congressional Democrats “que has hecho por nostros ultimamente?” Or, "What have you done for me lately?"

Unemployment among Latinos is stuck above 10 percent, higher than the national average. The Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants in four years than President Bush did in eight years.

An analysis by the Center for American Progress from earlier this year found that Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be at risk of foreclosure, with a Latino foreclosure rate of 11.9 percent, compared to just 5 percent for whites.

Though President Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to pass the DREAM Act, he never made it a priority and failed to bring Republicans and Democrats together to do it in his first term.

Then alarms went off at the Obama campaign in January when a Latino Decisions poll found 53 percent of Latino voters were "less enthusiastic" about Obama. 

Since then the president has issued an executive order halting the deportation of younger illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children, if they enroll in college or enlist in the military.

This was not quite the DREAM Act, but Hispanic voters appreciate Obama’s effort in the face of Republicans intransigence.

Convention speakers have spotlighted the GOP’s hardline stand on immigration, including opposition to the Dream Act and in-state tuition at state colleges for the children of illegal immigrants.

Team Obama’s strongest play at this point is to remind voters of Romney’s record on Latino issues. This year that could be enough.

Romney, after all, is the candidate who has called for undocumented workers to engage in “self deportation,” has said Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law should be a “model for the nation” and promised to veto the DREAM Act. 

His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), even voted against an early version of the bill in 2010.

Texas Rep. Charlie Gonzales (D), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, riled the convention audience when he said: “Mitt Romney has embraced the racial-profiling policies of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio."

Arpaio is the Sherriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., who has become a conservative celebrity over the immigration issue. He has been criticized and investigated by authorities over his harsh treatment of suspected undocumented workers in his custody.

Romney’s embrace of anti-immigration hardliners like Brewer, Arpaio, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former California Gov. Pete Wilson sends a damning message to Hispanic voters.

The Latino speakers who starred at this convention will now go out to the swing states to speak to Hispanic voters. The top attraction will be San Antonio’s Mayor Castro.

He has a compelling personal story about being raised by his grandmother, a Mexican immigrant. “I can still remember her, every morning as (my brother) Joaquin and I walked out the door to school, making the sign of the cross behind us, saying, ‘Que dios los bendiga.’ ‘May God bless you,’ ” Castro recalled.

President Obama’s success in the fall campaign needs every blessing from Latinos.