GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson during a speech at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) convention in Las Vegas on Wednesday. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

In an autopsy of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential election loss, the Republican Party concluded it was “imperative” for GOP candidates to step up their engagement with Latinos in order to win back the White House.

Otherwise, the report said, “they will close their ears to our policies.”

An obvious place to start would be the nation’s annual “Latino political convention” here this week in Las Vegas, where more than 1,200 Hispanic leaders have gathered for, among other things, a presidential candidates forum.

Yet out of the GOP’s 16 declared or likely presidential candidates, only one — retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — showed.

The absence of the others — including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who made outreach to Latino voters a central theme of his Miami campaign launch Monday — illustrates the gulf between the GOP’s urgent need to present a more welcoming face to Hispanics and how far those running to be the party’s standard-bearer are willing to go to do so.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who is making special efforts to reach out to Hispanics, is among more than a dozen GOP candidates who did not attend a Latino presidential forum this week. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Many campaigns cited “scheduling conflicts” for skipping the 32nd annual convention of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). Instead, at least 13 GOP candidates plan to be in Washington this week to address the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to the Majority” conference, the latest in a busy series of cattle-call events for social conservatives.

The two programs underscore the dueling priorities for Republican presidential hopefuls: the hot competition to court white evangelicals in the primaries and the imperative for the eventual nominee to improve his or her image among minority voters, especially Hispanics, in next year’s general election. The party’s 2016 candidates have been particularly bedeviled by how to handle immigration reform, which is strongly opposed by parts of the Republican base but broadly favored by Hispanic voters.

“All I can say is that schedules reflect priorities,” said Arturo Vargas, NALEO’s executive director. “Of course they should be here.”

“If anybody seeking the White House doesn’t understand the importance of people at the front lines of America’s challenge and engage with them, I don’t know why they are running for president,” he said.

Made up of federal, state and local elected officials, including mayors, law enforcement officers and school board members,
NALEO is nonpartisan, although many of its members are Democrats. Prominent Republicans have addressed the conference in past years, including Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and the last two GOP presidential nominees, former Massachusetts governor Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Two leading Democratic presidential candidates, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are speaking to NALEO on Thursday and Friday, respectively.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who addressed the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in 2012, warned last week that Republicans need to be welcoming of Hispanics. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The only Republican to make the trip spoke here Wednesday afternoon. Carson addressed what he called the “illegal immigration problem,” saying that the borders should be “completely” closed but that the government should act “as a compassionate nation” to the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living here.

“Provide them a way so that they don’t have to hide in the shadows,” Carson said. “Give them an opportunity to become guest workers. . . . If they want to become citizens, they have to get in line with everybody else.”

Democrats were quick to criticize Republicans who did not attend NALEO.

“It’s no surprise that the Republican candidates are making pandering to their base a priority while bypassing an opportunity to broaden their party once again,” said Ben Ray, communications director at American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, a rising Democratic star who gave a speech here Wednesday, said in an interview that it was “disappointing” that so many Republican candidates did not attend.

“They can come now or they can come later, but they’re going to have to pass through,” Castro said. He added, “The problem that Republicans have is truly with their policies.”

Republican strategist Katie Packer Gage, a former top Romney campaign official, said she does not think it is necessary “to make a command performance at one particular event to demonstrate a commitment to Latino voters.”

But, she added, “a pattern of not participating in these kinds of events is a mistake and sends a message that either you don’t value the audience or you don’t think your message will be well-
received. That is something that Republican candidates in particular should be mindful of.”

Following the 2012 election, Romney acknowledged that his hard-line position on immigration and sharp rhetoric during the primaries proved damaging in the general election. In a Republican debate, for instance, Romney called for “self-deportation” to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants. President Obama carried 71 percent of the Latino vote to Romney’s 27 percent.

Romney and his advisers now say they hope the GOP’s 2016 candidates draw lessons from his 2012 mistakes.

“It’s important for our party to communicate that we welcome people who are immigrants in this county, we value those who come here in this country and participate in our economy, that we are not hostile or angry or in a mood to reject people based upon their ethnicity,” Romney told reporters last week in Utah.

NALEO officials said they began sending invitations in March to presidential candidates to speak at its Las Vegas forum.

“Almost universally, they said it was a matter of scheduling conflicts,” Vargas said. “Some campaigns expressed more interest; others were quick to let us know they could not make it.”

In deciding not to come, at least some of the candidates probably calculated that they did not want to come before an audience that would expect them to discuss immigration policy. The GOP’s conservative base recoils from candidates with anything but a tough, anti-amnesty position, yet Latino and mainstream white voters support comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to legal status, if not citizenship.

Asked to explain why their candidates are not attending the
forum, campaign spokesmen had similarly vague responses.

“Governor Huckabee has a scheduling conflict and unfortunately cannot attend,” said Hogan Gidley, senior communications adviser to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

The word from Rand Paul? “Scheduling conflict,” said Sergio Gor, spokesman for the senator from Kentucky.

Ditto from team Rubio: “Scheduling conflicts,” spokesman Alex Conant said.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has been in Canada on a six-day trade mission, returned to Madison on Wednesday for budget meetings, spokeswoman AshLee Strong said.

As for Bush, he has been in New Hampshire and Iowa this week on his announcement tour. An aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Bush couldn’t fit Nevada — which holds the nation’s fourth early-nomination contest — onto his itinerary.

But, the aide added, “it is clear he will be committed to reaching out to Latino groups throughout his coming effort.”