ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The Republican Party is beefing up its minority outreach nationwide and preparing to put its rising Latino stars on the campaign trail amid concerns that tough immigration rhetoric in the presidential primary is taking on an increasingly anti-Hispanic tone.
But immigrant-rights groups and some political watchers say the damage may be irreversible. They argue that the GOP has severely hampered itself as it looks to woo the critical Latino voting bloc that could decide who wins key states like New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida next fall.
Mitt Romney "is done," said DeeDee Blase, founder of Somos Republicans in Arizona. "He'll be lucky to get 8 percent of the Hispanic vote" after saying he would veto legislation that would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants and accepting the endorsement of anti-immigration activist Kris Kobach, architect of two of the strongest immigration crackdown laws in the country.
The GOP front-runner, Romney has referred to the legislation – called the DREAM Act – as a handout. The measure would allow some young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to earn legal status if they went to college or joined the military. Challengers, including Texas Gov. Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, have also taken tough anti-immigration stances in the campaign.
Language from them has been so sharp that even New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, has warned the candidates to watch their tongues.
"What we have to do is this: We have to tone down the rhetoric, and we have to have a sincere, honest conversation with the voters," Martinez said Wednesday, shortly after the Republican National Committee announced that it had hired a director of Hispanic outreach and was expanding its Latino-focused efforts. She's among the popular Hispanic politicians Republicans will deploy to battleground states in the coming months.
There's a reason for the urgent tone coming from Republican leaders on this matter.
The government projects Hispanics will account for roughly 30 percent of the population by 2050, doubling in size and boosting their political power. Overall, Hispanics traditionally tilt Democrat, meaning the Republican Party is looking at a threat to their future power if they don't work to make inroads with this politically pivotal group now.
Democrats have strengthened their standing with Hispanics in the most recent presidential election years. While much was made during the Democratic primary of 2008 of President Barack Obama's perceived weakness among Hispanics, he won 67 percent of their vote in the general election to 31 percent for Republican John McCain. It was a huge jump from 2004 when Democratic nominee John Kerry won Hispanics by 53 percent to 44 percent for Bush, a Texan who focused heavily on Hispanics.
Some worry that this year's eventual GOP nominee won't fare much better than McCain four years ago – and may fare worse – if candidates don't soften the way they talk about immigration.
"It's an emotional issue, and I think if the candidate can realize that and talk about it, you can still be conservative on immigration and talk about it in a way that doesn't turn off Hispanics," said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network. She agreed that "some of the rhetoric could be pared back a bit" but disagreed that presidential candidates are shutting out huge blocs of Latino voters.
The issue is about to push to the forefront as the race for the GOP presidential nomination moves to Florida after South Carolina votes Jan. 21.
Korn's group is sponsoring its third conference in February in Miami, one day before it sponsors a debate with CNN.
Newt Gingrich, who supports a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, is the only presidential candidate scheduled to speak at the event.
Mindful of the challenges, the Republican National Committee unveiled expanded efforts to woo Hispanics last week.
Party Chairman Reince Priebus said the national party had hired Bettina Inclan as director of Hispanic outreach and was implementing a "multifaceted approach to connect with the Hispanic community" that will include digital outreach, traditional voter identification and get-out-the-vote efforts. It is also putting teams on the ground in key states, he said, and will tap popular GOP Hispanics like Martinez, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Yet even as they announced boosted efforts, Priebus and Inclan downplayed the impact the immigration issue will have come November, emphasizing the unemployment rate among Hispanics is at 11 percent, almost two points higher than the national average.
"We need to address it," Inclan said. "We need to talk about it. But poll after poll shows the No. 1 issue for Latinos in this country is going to be how they are going to feed their family."
Democrats, meanwhile, are making the GOP's task harder. Obama's campaign is way ahead in its grassroots outreach to Hispanics thanks to the fact that he doesn't have a primary opponent. His re-election campaign has had teams long in place on the ground in states like Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. And volunteers already are knocking on doors and conducting voter registration drives and weekly phone banks to shore up the Latino base.
But immigration is also a weak spot for Obama ahead of the November election. His campaign pledge to overhaul the immigration system remains unfulfilled – which he blames on lack of cooperation from Republicans in Congress – and he's been criticized for a record number of deportations last year – 400,000.
As Obama gears up for a re-election contest, his administration has modified some immigration regulations. The Department of Homeland Security announced in August would focus deportation efforts on criminal illegal immigrants. Earlier this month the Obama administration proposed new rules to cut down on the time Americans are separated from their illegal immigrant spouses and children waiting outside the country for a visa to enter the U.S. About 75 percent of the hardship applications to waive the wait were filed by Mexicans, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras in Albuquerque contributed to this report