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Romney tries to build bridges with an uneasy Hispanic constituency

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

Prepping for what some see as a potential game-changer speech in front of a Hispanic audience later this month, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has begun an effort to recalibrate his fiery anti-illegal immigration rhetoric to dig into the 2-1 advantage President Obama has among the 50 million-strong US Latino community.

After calling some of his rivals soft on immigration during the Republican primaries, and even suggesting that illegal immigrants should “self-deport,” Mr. Romney has recently hired a Hispanic outreach coordinator and is contemplating proposing an immigration reform package that could include a new class of visas for students. He even has a new Spanish slogan: “Junto con Romney,” or “Together with Romney.”

Contrasted with a slew of other Republican initiatives that seem to demonize Hispanics – purging voter rolls in Florida, inspecting residency papers at schools in Alabama, raising the stakes for picking up day workers in a pickup truck in Georgia – Romney’s gambit to cut into Obama’s advantage seems, at first glance, a Sisyphean task.

For Romney the candidate, the Hispanic voting bloc is unfamiliar territory: Massachusetts, where he was governor, has a relatively small Hispanic population compared to other states, and he never got so far in the 2008 campaign as to directly address Hispanic interests. On the other hand, Romney does have a unique Hispanic claim: His father, George, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in a colony of Mormons.

Yet while most Hispanics self-identify as liberals, the massive voting bloc is far from a lock for Obama. Hispanics consistently cite the economy, not immigration, as the key issue in the country, and their values – especially when it comes to family and religion – line up more neatly with conservatives than liberals.

At an upcoming speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in June 21, Romney will have an opportunity to contrast his immigration views with those of Obama, who speaks to the group a day later.

According to the Boston Globe, Romney’s advisers are pushing him to consider proposing some kind of immigration reform, potentially along the lines of an idea floated by potential vice-presidential pick Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, that focuses on visas, not citizenship, as a way to bring illegal immigrants into the fold of the documented.

“The problem Republicans have is that most Hispanics living in the US are here legally, which means the Republicans tend to spray people with a shot gun in terms of the rhetoric,” says Efren Perez, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, setting up Romney’s challenge. “They need to see illegal immigration as part of a larger equation, where the reason we have a problem with illegal immigration is because we can’t address illegal immigration” with policy.

The outline of the fight for the Hispanic vote is happening right now in swing states like Florida and Colorado, where some Republicans are finding themselves almost apologizing for their party’s cage-rattling moves against Hispanic interests.

After Colorado Republicans shut down a bill that would have given in-state tuition to some undocumented students, GOP Chairman Ryan Call acknowledged that such votes make it harder “to talk about issues that are important to the Hispanic community.”

And a move by Republican Gov. Rick Scott in Florida to purge voter rolls of noncitizens – most of them with Hispanic surnames – could backfire, especially among the state’s politically powerful Cuban community, says Mr. Perez at Vanderbilt.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last month found Obama ahead of Romney among Hispanic voters by a 61-27 percent margin. So far, Obama has outspent Romney by $1.3 million versus $33,000 on Spanish-language ads in swing states. Most of those ads have played up how Obama has helped Hispanic families rather than slamming Romney.

Yet Hispanics, as a bloc, are staying attuned to the presidential contest, weighing their options, suggests former US Treasurer Rosario Marin, in a column for Fox News Latino. The fact is, Hispanics, as with other minorities, have taken the brunt of the country’s economic downturn, watching their unemployment rate climb to 11 percent, compared to the 8.2 percent national average – a point Romney has lately hammered home.

“Immigration reform is certainly an important issue for the Latino community,” Ms. Marin writes. “But let’s be clear; as the heads of household, the Latinos I know will choose a candidate that can help them fulfill their primary role. They will vote for someone who gives them a job … or helps them create their own job. They gave Obama his chance. He has failed.”

In short, Romney’s looming challenge to win more Hispanic voters without alienating his own base is to couch a hard line on illegal immigration with a proactive stance on immigration reform, all while promising a “rising tide lifts all boats” economic recovery.

With a major advantage in Hispanic support going into the election, Obama’s challenge will be different, Colorado Democratic campaign operative Alan Salazar told the Wall Street Journal: “overcoming apathy.”