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Can the GOP, and Mitt Romney, reach Latino voters before it's too late?

The GOP is lagging dangerously in its appeal to Latino voters, some party leaders fear, and Mitt Romney's poll numbers are sounding alarm bells. The issue is not just message, but policy.

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“I think he’s decided he’s going to deal with this issue as president and not as a candidate. And that’s probably smart politics frankly,” said former Senator and Republican National Committee Chairman Mel Martinez. Romney’s plan is “don’t talk about immigration, but somehow find a way to connect with Hispanic voters.”

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During the 2012 cycle, Team Romney’s appeal to Latinos has been based on Romney’s economic program, emphasizing that the bloc ranks the economy as its top voting issue and that 10 percent of Latinos are unemployment, two percentage points above the national average.

What seems to be the best-case scenario for the Republican Party this time around is that Latinos, dispirited by Obama’s broken promise of immigration reform in his first year in office and hard-hit by the economy, simply stay home.

“This election is about economics, and these groups have been hit the hardest,” House Speaker John Boehner said at a lunch hosted by The Christian Science Monitor on Monday. “They may not show up to vote for our candidate, but I would suggest to you that they will not show up to vote for the president.”

Strategist Rove echoed those remarks earlier the same day, predicting that the 2012 cycle could see flat to declining Latino voters “for the first time in modern history” because of a lack of enthusiasm.

Pointed rhetoric on immigration

But Romney and the Republican Party face serious challenges to closing the gap with Latinos that aren’t going to be fixed this cycle. A vocal portion of the party’s base remains steadfast in supporting policies and rhetoric that Hispanics find offensive.

That was on display during the primary when Romney used immigration issues – such as criticizing Texas Gov. Rick Perry for allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition – to score points with conservative Republicans like Ruby Robinson of Brunswick, Ga.

Ms. Robinson, a district Republican chairwoman and a delegate to the national convention, said she was “not worried” about the need for the GOP to attract Latino voters in the future and lauded those like South Carolina Gov. Haley for taking tough immigration measures.

Some of the same pointed rhetoric on immigration can be found in the party’s official platform, which opposes “any form of amnesty” for illegal immigrants, offers support for “humane procedures to encourage illegal aliens to return home voluntarily” – an allusion to Romney’s statement that illegal immigrants should “self-deport” – and says the federal government should dismiss lawsuits against states like Arizona that have instituted harsh immigration policies.

“Weaponizing” the immigration issue during a primary wasn’t good for the party’s standing among Latino voters.

“We went through a really tough period of time where the primary did the opposite of what we needed to be doing,” former Senator Martinez said. “It polarized the whole issue of immigration in a terrible way.”

A paralyzing bewilderment

Perhaps just as difficult to overcome is what might best be described as a paralyzing bewilderment.

As President Ronald Reagan put it: “Latinos are Republicans – they just don’t know it.”

Republicans from rank-and-file delegates up to elected members of Congress profess that Hispanics “should” be Republican voters for their conservative stances on marriage, faith, the military, and entrepreneurship.

If they “should” be Republicans, so the theory goes, then the onus is only on changing the GOP’s messaging – not its policies or its candidates.

None other than vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan took issue with similar thinking in his speech Wednesday night.

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