Mitt Romney’s Hispanic dilemma

at 03:01 PM ET, 01/12/2012

On Wednesday morning, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney put out an ad in Spanish in Florida. That afternoon, he touted the endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who co-authored the controversial immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama.
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a Nashua Chamber of Commerce breakfast on January 9, 2012 in Nashua, New Hampshire. (Justin Sullivan - GETTY IMAGES)

That juxtaposition shows the difficult path the frontrunner is facing as he seeks to simultaneously wrap up the Republican nomination while also beginning to move to the ideological center for the general election.

The swing states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and North Carolina all have large Hispanic populations. Florida especially will be critical to Romney’s bid.

Of those, Florida is the only state with a significant Republican Hispanic voting bloc: Cuban-Americans, who make up about a quarter of the state’s Latino population. In 2008, 64 percent of this group voted for Sen. John McCain (R).

“A strong turnout of Cuban voters for Romney could balance out other Latinos” in Florida, said Dr. Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at the University of California-Irvine. (Cuban voters tend to turn out in higher numbers than others of Hispanic heritage.)

But even Romney’s Cuban-American supporters in Florida break with him on immigration. His heated rhetoric on illegal immigration has gotten widespread coverage in Hispanic media — which will be an even bigger problem for Romney outside the Sunshine State.

Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue for conservatives, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry found out when he tried to explain his support for the Lone Star State’s version of the DREAM Act. And rather than side with his rival in an attempt to win over Hispanic voters, Romney capitalized on Perry’s weakness, even airing a web ad tying Perry to the former president of Mexico. (Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has also been pilloried during the primaries for his somewhat centrist stance on immigration.)

Last week in Iowa, Romney made a new promise — that he would veto the DREAM Act if he was president. Ninety-one percent of Latinos support the DREAM Act.

“Mitt Romney is a strong proponent of legal immigration,’ Romney spokesman Albert Martinez said in a statement. “Mitt Romney is opposed to illegal immigration and amnesty because it is unfair to those who want to come to this country legally.”

Hispanic voters aren’t taking to Romney though. In a recent Pew Hispanic Center survey, Obama led Romney by 68 to 23 percent among Latino voters. Democrats currently hold a 47-point party identification advantage with Hispanic voters, the largest gap in the past decade.

There are plenty of caveats: the general election is almost a year away, and the Pew poll is just a snapshot in time. And, President Obama’s deportation policy has not been popular with Hispanics either.

“I think his ad in Spanish is pretty effective,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials of the Romney Florida commercial. As for the Republican’s immigration rhetoric, Vargas said: “I would expect that probably would change if he becomes the nominee and moves to the center.”

And if Romney taps Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as his running-mate, that could almost certainly change the dynamic — perhaps giving Republicans a foothold to shrink their current deficit among Latino voters. perhaps giving Republicans a foothold to shrink their current deficit among Latino voters.

But even Rubio might have difficulty dealing with the immigration
problem. Need proof? Check out how the senator answered questions on the issue in this New Yorker article.

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