MIAMI — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told a Republican gathering Thursday evening that the time is now to connect better with Latino voters, not two months before the general election.
Bush is co-chairing a conference Friday of the new Hispanic Action Network, part of the GOP's latest efforts to forge ties with the growing number of Latino voters. The conference will focus on trade, immigration, media outreach and education.
"Typically what happens in politics is you're working hard and you say, 'Oh gosh, we better start working at campaigning in the Hispanic community,' and it's like Sept. 15," he told the crowd at the elegant Biltmore Hotel in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. "This is not about politics. This is about the conservative cause. If you look over the horizon over the next 10 or 20 years...without an active involvement of Hispanics, we will not be the governing philosophy."
The Hispanic Action Network is backed by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, whose American Action Network funneled more than $30 million in campaign funds to Republicans in about 30 congressional races last year.
With the Latino population growing in swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and Florida, Republicans need to chip away at Hispanics' overall 2-1 preference for Democrats to have any hope of capturing the presidency.
Democrats are confident their party's efforts on health care, education and the economy will continue to appeal to Hispanic voters, whom they believe have been turned off by Republican campaign attacks on illegal immigrants.
But Bush and other Republicans have long maintained their party is a natural fit for Hispanics, particularly recent immigrants. They cite the party's social conservatism, anti-abortion stance and support for private school vouchers and lower taxes. Voters last year elected several Latino Republicans to prominent posts, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Bush's group is not the only conservative organization focusing on Hispanic outreach.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible 2012 presidential candidate, announced a similar effort in Washington, D.C., last month with his Americanos group. The conservative Heritage Foundation also now has a Spanish Web site, Libertad.org. Meanwhile, Alfonso Aguilar, former President George W. Bush's first citizenship and immigration czar, runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
The former president, who is Jeb Bush's brother, had a stronger and more successful Hispanic outreach program than almost any other national Republican.
Jeb Bush, who is fluent in Spanish and met his Mexican-born wife Columba when he taught English in her homeland, said reaching out "is about more than running ads in the Spanish-language media. It's also about showing people you want them to be part of the effort, putting in the time even when people aren't looking." And, Bush added, "it means using rhetoric that doesn't turn people off."
He told The Associated Press "the more the merrier" as far as outreach programs go. Unlike Gingrich, Bush has ruled out running for president in 2012.
Of next year's crop of likely GOP presidential contenders, only former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is scheduled to speak at the conference, where more than 600 are likely to attend.
But Republican groups have their work cut out for them following an election year in which Republican Senate candidate Sharon Angle of Nevada ran ads portraying illegal immigrants as thuggish gang members, and Hispanic voters overwhelmingly sided with Sen. Michael Bennet against Republican Ken Buck, a former county prosecutor who had tried to deport more illegal immigrants by seizing income-tax returns from accountants that catered to Spanish speakers. The plan was later thrown out by a court.
The House Republican leadership took a symbolic step toward bridging the gap with Latinos last week in bypassing Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa as the next chairman of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration. King once suggested on the House floor that an electrified border fence would stop illegal immigrants, likening it to the practice used to corral livestock.
"Obviously there was a message sent with Steve King not being selected for chair," said Aguilar, who is attending the conference. "But now the question is beyond ending harsh rhetoric: Will they actively propose a conservative proposal that goes beyond border control and domestic enforcement to a temporary work status."
As president, George W. Bush unsuccessfully pushed for sweeping immigration reform. But so far, the only new Republican proposal on immigration has come from a group of state lawmakers who are hoping for a Supreme Court ruling that would end the granting of automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.
Simon Rosenberg, head of the liberal-leaning NDN organization, applauded the efforts of Republicans such as Jeb Bush to reach Latinos.
"It would be bad for the Latino community to only have one political party working with them," he said.
But Rosenberg questioned the notion that Hispanics have more in common with conservatives, noting that many Hispanics lack health insurance and will benefit from the Democrats' recent health care overhaul.
He said the GOP needs more than improved outreach.
"There is a reactionary strain in the Republican Party that is angry about how the country is changing," he added, referring to the effects of immigration. "We are moving toward a majority nonwhite country. That is very difficult for some people to accept. And those people tend to be more Republican."
Bush and Gingrich support comprehensive immigration reform, but GOP leaders must still satisfy those who want to focus mainly on border security, including new Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott was among the keynote speakers Thursday night. Other speakers include the co-chair, former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, as well as Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
Coleman said he's proud of the diverse perspectives the conference will offer and hopes it leads to serious debate.
"So much of immigration is about tone," he said. Coleman added that Florida's Rubio and New Mexico's Martinez talk about immigration and border security "but in a tone that is helpful and respectful."
But neither Rubio nor Martinez will be at the conference, nor will newly elected Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, another Hispanic GOP star. Coleman said both Sandoval and Martinez have just begun their jobs and couldn't get away. A spokesman for Rubio said the senator would be working on official business outside of South Florida but declined to provide details.
Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report from Washington. AP writer Kristen Wyatt contributed from Denver.