When Mitt Romney heads to Puerto Rico on Friday on the hunt for delegates before Sunday's primary, his campaign hopes to telegraph his message not just to American voters of Puerto Rican descent but to the broader universe of Latinos, who will play an outsized role in November.
The images of Romney campaigning with one of his most prominent Latino surrogates, Puerto Rico's Gov. Luis Fortuño, however, will mask the worrisome reality facing Republicans in the fall contest with President Obama. In a GOP race that has catered to the party's most conservative elements, the sometimes harsh tone adopted by Romney and his rivals on illegal immigration appears to be driving many Latino voters away.
A recent poll by Fox News Latino illustrated the problem for the GOP: 70% of Latino voters backed Obama, compared with 14% supporting Romney (a few points above his GOP competitors). Four in five Latino voters who backed Obama in 2008 said they would back him in 2012. And voters who supported 2008 Republican nominee John McCain — who appealed to some Latino voters because of his advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform — split between the two parties.
The numbers suggest that this year's Republican nominee will struggle to match the 31% of the Latino vote captured by McCain in 2008, much less the 40% garnered by George W. Bush in 2004.
"Republican candidates have a major image problem with Latino voters," said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political science professor. Polling by the firm he co-founded, Latino Decisions, showed that more than a quarter of Latino voters viewed the GOP as hostile and nearly half believed the party had ignored their concerns.
Widening the divide, Barreto said, is the fact that a majority of Latinos support Obama's healthcare law (which Republicans want to repeal), favor greater government spending to revive the economy, and support tax increases on the wealthy to address the deficit.
"On a variety of policy issues, Republicans are positioning themselves on the opposite side of Latinos," Barreto said.
Romney's strategists argue that his business savvy will resonate with Latinos, who rank the economy and jobs as their top concern. Speaking before Latino audiences, the former Massachusetts governor has touted his plans to launch an initiative to bring American and Latin American business owners together and create greater opportunity for Latino businesses through tax cuts.
On Thursday, Romney's campaign released a new Spanish-language radio ad, "Oportunidad." Narrating in Spanish, Romney's youngest son, Craig, emphasizes his father's "plan to create jobs" and "fight to get the economy of the 'Island of Enchantment' going again."
Tailoring his message to different sectors of the Latino community, Romney has joined other GOP candidates in supporting conditional statehood for Puerto Rico, if its voters back the move in an upcoming referendum. And he drew a warm response at events in Miami's Little Havana and Hialeah from Cuban American supporters — the most conservative Latino voters — in part by promising to "help Cuba become free."
But it is Romney's views on illegal immigration that have drawn the most notice in Latino communities. During the Republican debates, Romney repeatedly sought to outflank his rivals with a hard line on illegal immigration, in part because he has struggled to connect with the party's most conservative voters.
He criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry for supporting in-state tuition for students who are illegal immigrants. He also pounded former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for suggesting that older illegal immigrants who had been in the U.S. for more than two decades should be given greater deference than those who had entered the country more recently.
Romney also handed Democrats a potent general election issue when he praised Arizona's approach to illegal immigration — including the state's requirement that police, while enforcing other laws, question the immigration status of people they suspect of being in the country illegally. Romney said during the debate that Arizona was a model for the nation.
Latino activists took notice when Romney won the backing of Arizona's GOP Gov. Jan Brewer and former California Gov. Pete Wilson, a fellow Republican who backed the state's Proposition 187, which targeted illegal immigrants in the mid-1990s. Obama's deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, ridiculed Brewer's endorsement on Twitter: "Say goodbye to the Hispanic vote."
Romney's GOP rival Rick Santorum was mired in his own controversy this week after the Spanish-language newspaper El Vocero quoted him as saying that if Puerto Rico were to become a state, it would have to recognize English as its official language. (Both English and Spanish are recognized as official languages.)
During a brief chat with reporters Thursday at a San Juan hotel, Santorum said the newspaper's characterization of his comments was "completely inaccurate." He said while he believed that English should be the preferred language of Puerto Rico, if the territory were to become a state, he would support recognition of both languages.
A video of the El Vocero interview posted at vocero.com shows Santorum discussing the prospect of Puerto Rican statehood: "I have said repeatedly that, as a condition for admission, that people would — would and could speak both languages — but have to speak English. That would be a requirement.... If you're going to participate as a state in the United States, then you need to participate in the language of people speaking in the states."
Statehood is the issue of chief concern to voters in Puerto Rico — and the Republican candidates largely agree on the matter. Though the residents of Puerto Rico will weigh in on the Republican race Sunday, they, like residents of other U.S. territories, may not vote for president in the general election. Still, many Americans of Puerto Rican descent are concentrated in Florida's Orlando-Tampa corridor — a crucial swing area in the general election.
Democrats believe that the Republican rhetoric in recent months will create greater opportunities for Obama in states like Colorado, Florida and possibly even Arizona. To guard against erosion in the GOP's standing in those states and "be competitive" this fall, Republican pollster Whit Ayres said, the GOP candidates must do a better job of reaching out to Latino voters. The visits to Puerto Rico this week by Romney and Santorum are a start, he said.
"It's very important when you're talking about volatile emotional issues like immigration that you use the right tone," Ayres said.
Romney, he added, would be best served in the months ahead by focusing "like a laser beam" on economic issues rather than getting mired in the immigration debate. "If Gov. Romney can persuade Latinos that he has a better understanding of how to get this economy going and how to create jobs, he will do well."