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Some Latinos see hint of a compliment in Romney video

When Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comments to donors went public, his description of President Obama’s supporters as government dependents who do not pay income tax created an instant furor.

The reaction obscured comments made by Romney during the May 17 fundraiser that addressed his own struggles to appeal to Latino voters.

Romney mentioned his late father, George, who was born in Mexico, and said: “Had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot of winning this.”

“But he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico,” he continued. “He lived there for a number of years. I mean, I say that jokingly, it would be helpful to be Latino.”

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The Republican presidential nominee’s joke came with a dire warning: “We’re having a much harder time with Hispanic voters, and if the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African American voting bloc has in the past,” he said, “why, we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”

Romney’s quip drew some derision, with one group wondering whether a real-life “Mexican Mitt” — as opposed to the Twitter parody account — would have supported Arizona’s “show me your papers” immigration law. And in anticipation of Romney’s appearance on Spanish-language media giant Univision on Wednesday night, MoveOn.org released an ad that takes the candidate to task for suggesting his chance of winning would be enhanced if he was Latino.

“You’ve pledged to kill the Dream Act, you’d enable the police harassment of Latinos in Arizona, and your party is trying to suppress Latino votes,” a woman tells the camera. “But you joke that you want to be one so you can win?”

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But some Latino leaders saw in it a hint of a compliment in Romney’s comments — one that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. “When I got into this business, Latinos were not even on the radar. We weren’t even mentioned,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino-focused policy research and advocacy organization. “To me, he’s saying, ‘We’ve got to do something about Latinos. Maybe if I use my Mexican Romney history, that would be good… I wish I was Latino, then I might win.’ I mean, come on.”

Political experts said it is highly implausible the Latino vote would ever decline for Republicans to the level it has for black voters, as Romney appeared to suggest was possible as a worst-case scenario. Even with many Latinos viewing the GOP negatively, most polls still show about one-third plan to vote for Romney — a far higher share than the negligible support he’s getting from blacks.

But in Romney’s note of caution was a cold calculation of the importance of a fast-growing demographic group, particularly in battleground states that could help determine presidential races for years.

It’s a warning that has been voiced by other Republican leaders, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Karl Rove and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who told Spanish-language media giant Univision the GOP could draw Latino voters “if we just stop acting stupid and start focusing on the shared vision that we have.”

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Mike Madrid, a Latino Republican strategist in Sacramento, said the party will be in trouble if it follows the example of GOP leaders in California in the mid-1990s, when the harsh rhetoric and measures they used to combat illegal immigration ended up mobilizing Latinos as a force for the Democrats. He said Arizona is one state where leaders seem bent on treading this path.

Madrid contrasted this approach to that taken by Republicans in Texas, where the party has cultivated a “deep bench of Latino Republican leaders” and largely taken a less strident approach to illegal immigration. Despite the huge Latino population in Texas, the Republican party has maintained a comfortable edge. In 2004, former Texas Gov. George W. Bush received 44% of the country’s Latino vote, a seemingly unreachable number for Romney.

Madrid said Latinos’ problem with the Republican Party isn’t so much its message as its most draconian messengers, citing Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio as examples.

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“If you’re the Republican Party, you just have to not present this image of hating Latinos,” Madrid said. “… We’ve given Democrats a two-by-four to beat us over the head with. We’re giving them ammo.”

He said Romney’s comments about Latinos in the tape didn’t strike him as offensive, and seemed to him a “recognition that America has changed. … He’s saying there’s an electoral advantage in being Latino.”

But he said Romney will struggle with Latinos in part because of comments he made during the Republican primaries, when he and other candidates strove to appeal to the conservative base, suggesting mobilizing troops to the border and building an electrified fence.

Madrid pointed to the reaction during a debate in Arizona to Rick Perry stating that anybody who thinks illegal immigrant children brought by their parents shouldn’t be educated doesn’t “have a heart.”

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Romney was among the first to pounce on the Texas governor’s comment, saying: “I think that if you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a heart. I think it means you have a heart and a brain.”

Since then, the candidate has moderated his tone on illegal immigration. In an interview this week with Telemundo, Romney offered no specifics of how he would accomplish immigration reform, but said he would do a better job than Obama, whose moves he criticized as “temporary” half-measures.

“I will make sure that my answer to this issue is not political, but is practical for the families of Hispanic descent in this country,” he said, adding that that he didn’t believe in “rounding up 12 million people and putting them on buses and taking them out of the country.”

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But even after a Republican National Convention that featured several prominent Latino Republicans, Romney has not caught fire with Latino voters.

Recent polls have put Latino support for Obama at 60% or higher and Romney receiving 26% to 30%.

In the recorded speech, after Romney warned about the perils of utterly losing the Latino vote, a donor cried out: “Rubio!”

“We have some great Hispanic leaders in our party that will help communicate what our party stands for,” Romney replied.

Many of those leaders, including Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, were featured speakers at last month’s convention. Yet Latinos were far more prominent onstage in Tampa than in the crowd, which was overwhelmingly white.

Gonzalez, of the Velasquez Institute, said Republicans such as Bush and Rove recognized the importance of the growing Latino vote. The recession created desperate times and made the country more politically and racially polarized, erasing some of the gains the Bush administration had made with the Latino electorate, he said.

But Gonzalez said he thinks eventually Republicans will revert to being more moderate because the “party can’t hold power based on a declining demographic.”

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Eric Rodriguez, vice president of public policy for the National Council of La Raza, said Romney’s recorded comments about Latinos were “stark” and eye-opening.

“He made a few points about the Latino vote that I’d never really heard from him before. One was that he was struggling, and two that it it’s an important and influential vote and that over time if his party can’t find a way to connect with the Latino vote, it’s going to be very difficult over time,” he said. “I think that’s important. That’s an acknowledgment.”

But Romney’s claim that 47% of those who back the president pay no income taxes, believe they are victims and that the “government has a responsibility to take care of them” was also germane to Latinos, who should wonder whether the candidate lumps them into that group, Rodriguez said.

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimeshekutor


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