Obama and Romney both challenged on Latino vote

Romney needs to soften his tough-guy image on immigration, and Obama needs to generate the kind of enthusiasm among Latino voters he had in 2008. At the moment, according to a new poll, Obama is well ahead among such voters in five key battleground states.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shakes hands with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., after Romney was introduced by Rubio during a town hall-style meeting in Aston, Pa., April 23, 2012.

When it comes to Latino voters, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have very different challenges.

Romney’s is to greatly soften the image he presented on immigration when he sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 and again when he pointedly positioned himself to the tough-guy right of fellow Republicans, especially Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.

Obama may have the easier task: Convincing Hispanics – who voted for him by more than 2-to-1 over John McCain four years ago – to stick with him this time even though there’s been no comprehensive immigration reform and no DREAM Act. It’s basically a get-out-the-vote task among the electorate’s fastest-growing segment – once he’s convinced Hispanics that no immigration reform and no DREAM Act is the fault of recalcitrant congressional Republicans.

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The importance to both candidates is in the number of Hispanic voters in 2012 – expected to grow 20 percent over 2008, from 10 million to 12 million.

Both candidates – the incumbent and the presumptive Republican nominee – traveled to Orlando, Fla., this week to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

Romney’s speech – essentially criticizing Obama for an economy that has Latino unemployment well above the national average at 11 percent – got mixed reviews.

Glenn Llopis, founder of the business-oriented Center for Hispanic Leadership, says, “Romney further weakened his position with the community.”

“Romney spoke at the Hispanic community – not with them,” Mr. Llopis wrote on his Huffington Post blog. “He wasn't engaging and was obviously trying to ‘scare’ the community into voting for him [for economic reasons].”

On the other hand NALEO executive director Arturo Vargas, says he appreciates Romney’s understanding of the need for comprehensive immigration reform, new-found and with little specificity though it might be.

“That’s what I found most compelling of Governor Romney’s remarks – when he acknowledged that we have a broken immigration system,” Mr. Vargas told the Washington Post. “The fact that he said that to me, then, suggests that he understands that we need a fix.”

But Romney spoke to the Latino officials meeting in Orlando as “voters” rather than as “peers,” Vargas observed, indicating that the former Massachusetts governor has yet to connect at any personal level with Hispanic Americans. (The reason for his father having been born in Mexico – because the Romney family was avoiding federal anti-polygamy laws aimed at Mormons early in the 20th century – would seem to have canceled out any benefit that connection might have brought him.)

One prominent Latino who could help Romney – especially if he ends up on the GOP ticket – is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“I didn’t used to think that he’d make a difference, but I’ve changed my mind,” Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, said Friday on the “To the Point” radio program. “He sells himself very well. If they let Marco be Marco, get out there and tell his story, he’ll capture the imagination of many Latinos.”

But for Mitt Romney to capture the imagination of many Latinos – more than John McCain drew four years ago – is a big task indeed.

A new poll out Friday shows Obama leading Romney among Latino voters in five key battleground states – Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia.

The poll, conducted by the Latino Decisions political opinion research firm, has Obama leading Romney among Latinos 53-37 percent in Florida and 59-28 percent in Virginia. In Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada, Obama does even better, drawing some 70 percent of Latino support.

But given the closeness of the race and the growing strength of Romney’s candidacy, Obama may find the Latino vote even more critical to his winning strategy than it was in 2008.

“It’s never really been in doubt that Barack Obama was going to get a majority of the Latino vote,” Mr. Navarrette told “To the Point” host Warren Olney. “What’s still in doubt is the turnout issue. They need a big turnout.”

QUIZ: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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