His Task: Sell Hispanics on GOP
Immigration Conflict Puts Sen. Martinez in Tough Position

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

For many in the country's fastest-growing segment of the electorate, Sen. Mel Martinez is the face of the Republican Party.

The Florida senator was handpicked by President Bush to become the first Hispanic chairman of the Republican National Committee, and when Univision announced its plans to sponsor groundbreaking Spanish-language forums for the presidential hopefuls -- one for Democrats, the other for Republicans -- Martinez was thrilled. The largest Spanish-language U.S. television network and the fifth-largest overall, Univision is MTV, ESPN and CNN rolled into one for millions of Latinos.

"I think that to have candidates address the largest minority group in America would be a terrific thing," Martinez said in June, "and to do it on a network that the Hispanic community of America watches would be the right forum."

But though all the leading Democratic presidential contenders are scheduled to attend the 90-minute forum at the University of Miami tonight, only one Republican -- Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who co-authored a failed compromise immigration bill -- has accepted the invitation.

The estimated 41 million Latinos are a force in American politics, and in few states will their decisions be felt more than in Florida. The state is home to an estimated 3 million Hispanics, two-thirds of whom are Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, South Americans and Latin Americans, who lean Democratic, and the other third are Cubans, who lean Republican.

In recent elections, anti-Castro Cubans have consistently voted Republican, and they helped deliver Florida to Bush in 2000 and 2004. But Martinez and other GOP leaders worry that Republicans, by skipping events such as the Univision forum, are alienating a crucial voting bloc.

Citing scheduling conflicts among the candidates, Univision postponed the GOP forum, originally scheduled for next Sunday. Earlier this year, the Republican hopefuls snubbed two other high-profile Hispanic conferences -- the first held by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the biggest gathering of the Latino political class, in late June, and the second by the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights group, in late July. The Democratic candidates showed up for both events.

"I was hoping that there would be good participation in the Univision forum," Martinez said. "It's a very busy primary calendar, and their schedules are such that this forum didn't fit in. Now is this a rejection of Hispanic voters? Of course not. And I hope it's not seen that way."

Capitalizing on his experience as governor of Texas, Bush made historic inroads with Hispanic voters for a Republican, earning 30 percent of their votes in 2000 and 40 percent four years later.

"That was a remarkable achievement," said Roberto Suro, founder and former director of the Pew Hispanic Center, the Washington-based nonpartisan research group. "Bush and [former chief political adviser Karl] Rove believe that Hispanics are natural Republicans. Predominantly Catholic, they're socially conservative. And Bush and Rove sold them the old Main Street Republican approach of upward mobility into the middle class. It worked."

Last year's midterm election was a turning point, however, and the Republicans' share of the Hispanic vote dipped back to 30 percent. The turnaround, analysts said, was the result of the GOP's anti-immigration image. In late 2005, the House passed a bill that sought to toughen border security, authorize local police officers to detain illegal immigrants and crack down on businesses that hired illegal immigrants. Latinos responded by taking to the streets across the country.

"In politics, perception is reality. And in the past two years, the perception among Hispanics -- not just Hispanics who are undocumented but also those who were born and raised here -- is that they and their family are not welcome in the GOP. And that perception may stick," Suro said.

The Hispanic vote has been so important to Bush, allies said, that he shepherded the relatively obscure Martinez, a refugee from Cuba as a teenager, to election as the RNC's chairman. But now Martinez is in an increasingly awkward position.

On the eve of the Senate vote on the immigration bill, Fred Thompson, now the newest addition to the Republican presidential field, made headlines by declaring, "I don't imagine they're coming here to bring greetings from Castro. We're living in the era of the suitcase bomb.'' Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, two of the GOP front-runners, continue to exchange heated rhetoric on illegal immigration. And Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), who has built his long-shot bid on the issue of illegal immigration, has referred to Miami as a "Third World country."

"The Republican Party is consumed with illegal immigration right now, and Martinez is really in a very tough spot," said Sergio Bendixen, a pollster advising Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) on Hispanic issues. "He's got to represent the GOP, which is looking at immigration in one direction, and he's got to represent the Hispanic community, which is looking at that issue in another direction."

Added Simon Rosenberg, who has studied the Latino electorate and runs the New Democrat Network, a think tank that helped put together today's Democratic forum: "To be frank, every day Martinez's job is to put lipstick on a pig. It's not a pretty job, but he took it, and now he's got to live with it."

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