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Latino Voters: The GOP's Post-Iowa Challenge To Cut Into Obama's Support Among Hispanics

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses supports with his wife Ann and their sons Matt, Josh, Craig and Tagg behind him during a Romney for President Iowa Caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses supports with his wife Ann and their sons Matt, Josh, Craig and Tagg behind him during a Romney for President Iowa Caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa.

Let's get this party started.

For months now, the leading GOP candidates -- ever aware of the importance of the Latino vote to winning the White House -- demonstrated a remarkable ability to deftly dance on both sides of certain issues.

Newt Gingrich, for instance, drew loud applause at an Iowa campaign stop the other day by repeating his pledge to make English the official language of government. At the same time, his campaign sent Spanish-language e-mails soliciting Latino support in the days before the Iowa caucus.

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney -- who edged Rick Santorum by only eight votes in Iowa -- countered that, if elected, he would veto the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide legal status to some undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children. Romney then added a twist, saying he could support the offer of legal status to people who served in the U.S. military. A potential policy slogan: Take bullet, win Green Card.

Hours after his narrow victory in Iowa, Romney reiterated his opposition to the DREAM Act in patronizing reference to Latino voters.

"If they want a president who is going to talk to them about a handout or more benefits for free, they got that guy," he told CNN, referring to President Obama. "If they, instead, want a president who understands the economy who has lived in the economy and understands what it takes to help people get jobs, again, then I'm that person."

Santorum, the Pennsylvania underdog who surged in recent weeks, portrayed himself as a pro-family, immigrant son while espousing a hard line on immigration. In a September debate, when Santorum was asked how he would attract Latino voters, he initially used the term the "illegal vote" before correcting himself.

Finally, the long-anticipated, much-hyped Iowa dance is over. And a new one begins.

The seemingly contradictory messages of the GOP favorites may have had little sway in a state with a Latino population of just 5 percent.

But it remains to be seen how the moves of Republican challengers ultimately will affect their chances of celebrating at the White House.

Their field narrowed, the remaining GOP candidates must now sharpen their message for what's expected to be a longer and just-as-unpredictable contest.

Some pundits, in fact, even suggested that Iowa was too white to matter. Still, as The Christian Science Monitor reported, don't entirely dismiss results from the Hawkeye State:

"At first glance there is something to the criticism of Iowa as racially unrepresentative of the US. According to the US Census Bureau, Iowa is 91.3 percent white. The US as a whole is 72.4 percent white. Iowa's population is 2.9 percent black, as opposed to 12.6 percent for the US as a whole. Latinos make up 5 percent of the state versus 16.3 percent of the US...

But race and ethnicity are not the only factors that determine whether a state is representative of the US as a whole. It may not be the most important, either, politically speaking. On other demographic measures -- income numbers, union membership, seat belt use, high school graduation rate, and so forth -- Iowa is much more like the rest of the nation."

In 2008, President Obama took Iowa in the caucuses and general election "with the help of a small cadre of Latino voters scattered throughout the state," ABC News reported:

"Just under 2 percent of all eligible voters in Iowa are Latino, a far lower percentage than nationwide, to say nothing of other key early states such as Florida and Nevada. But political observers have begun to doubt if Obama can generate the same enthusiasm among Latinos -- in Iowa and elsewhere -- because of frustration over his record, especially on immigration and deportation policies."

And disappointment over Obama's record deportation levels, his failure to pass immigration reform and frustration about the 11.4 percent unemployment rate among Latinos give Republicans hope of making inroads with Latinos. While frustrated with Obama's immigration policies, many Latinos see the president as the lesser of two evils.

"I don't think any Hispanic in his right mind is going to vote for Rick Perry or [Mitt] Romney," Jose Zacarias, a Mexican native who lives in West Liberty, Iowa, told ABC News. "It might be a tough sell [for Obama], but I think the GOP is helping a lot by putting those guys forward. Romney, Rick Perry, Newt [Gingrich] for Christ's sake, you know?"

By the time the votes were counted in Iowa, the Republican challengers had inflicted "permanent damage" on themselves among Hispanics and older voters, according to a memo from the pro-Obama PAC Priorities USA Action, POLITICO reported:

The memo, authored by former White House spokesman Bill Burton, argues that the GOP field's close embrace of the Paul Ryan budget and Mitt Romney's rhetoric on immigration issues will damage the party in the general election.

"New Republican litmus tests on the plan to dismantle Medicare and on a divisive and unworkable immigration policy raise concerns from senior and Hispanic voters who have rightly rejected both proposals," Burton writes. "In his effort to dispatch Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, Mitt Romney has underscored this problem. On Medicare, he harshly criticized Gingrich for opposing the House Republican plan that would essentially end Medicare. And on immigration, he savaged Gingrich and Perry for advocating anything less than a draconian, systematic deportation of all undocumented immigrants."

You sort of expected that from Obama supporters. But early Wednesday, even Gingrich was urging the GOP to look inward, to have a "great debate" within the party before it prepares for the ultimate debate with Obama.

Nationwide, the number of Latinos eligible to vote has grown by 2 million since 2008, and now totals an estimated 21.7 million eligible voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Many Republican strategists doubt the party's ability to win the White House without cutting significantly into Obama's support among Latinos. The president won 67 percent of Hispanic voters in 2008.

Many will be paying close attention to the GOP's next dance.

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