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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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“President Obama was asked not long ago to reflect on any mistakes he might have made,” the Wisconsin congressman said. “He said, well, ‘I haven’t communicated enough.’ He said his job is to ‘tell a story to the American people’ – as if that’s the whole problem here? He needs to talk more, and we need to be better listeners?”

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In the meantime, unless this wished-for ideological lightning strikes millions of Latinos, the party is going to need both the Latino stars among its current elected officials and efforts like those lead by Mr. Jankowski of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC).

For all the GOP’s national Latino problems, the party has an all-star cast of state leaders. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno join Martinez as the nation’s only Hispanic governors. In the Senate, Florida’s Rubio likely will soon be joined by Texas candidate Ted Cruz.

Having high-profile Latinos running for major office may help introduce those who have historically voted Democratic to the GOP.

“When we see high-profile elected officials who are Hispanic, it makes people stop and think and then educate themselves,” said Isaac Castro, an immigrant from Mexico and the mayor of Hamlin, Tex.

Developing the next stars

But praying for successive generations of Latino all-stars even as the party remains at odds with the Latino electorate at large isn’t a promising political strategy. That’s where Jankowski comes in.

“We just have to go and elect more [Hispanic Republicans] and get them on that escalator to higher office,” he said. “We don’t know who is [going to be] the next Marco Rubio or Brian Sandoval, we just know the more you elect of Hispanic descent, the better chance you have of producing an amazing leader.”

Currently, about a quarter of some 250 state legislators of Hispanic descent are Republicans. After this cycle, Jankowski aims to have doubled that number. The Future Majority Project, as the drive is known, supports candidates whose biographies and positions on immigration vary widely. The organization is “agnostic” on immigration policy, Jankowski said.

While the RSLC only targets areas that are better than 45 percent Republican, they will plant the flag in many places that have yet to see Hispanic Republican contenders. And that’s a step toward the inclusive campaigning strategy that Governor Martinez of New Mexico believes is vital to winning bigger prizes.

“It’s important that we go into every corner, whether it’s your state or the country,” Martinez said. “A lot of Republicans will consider a part of their state and say ‘I’ll never win that so I won’t go there.’ You have to” go beyond where Republicans are comfortable.

Without such outreach, Republicans fear they’ll be in for electoral beatings as sound as some they’ve administered to Democrats who ignored the South.

“Democrats ignored the South and lost the South. After 40 years of abandoning the South, the South turned red,” said Chris Daniel, a convention delegate and Harris County District Clerk in Houston, Tex.

But will Mitt Romney and the GOP change course before they lose their demographic “south”?

Asked to evaluate Romney’s outreach to Latinos thus far, Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and leading party strategist, smiled wryly.

“He’s got two months,” Barbour said.

The party? Jankowski thinks it’s a bit longer: six to eight years. But the ramifications of failure are far worse.  

“If we don’t perform better, we will lose,” he said, “and never win.”

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