Latino politicians and operatives had some advice on Wednesday for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney: Don't talk about immigration during the Thursday evening speech at the Republican National Convention.
In fact, former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said, Romney might want to avoid talking about it during the campaign at all.
"I think he's decided he's going to deal with this issue as a president and not as a candidate," Martinez said at a panel in Tampa hosted by ABC News, Univision and National Journal.
All of the panelists, some Latino and some not -- Martinez, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and operatives Ana Navarro and Whit Ayres -- warned their party that ignoring Latino voters would cause permanent damage to Republicans as the population grows. Latino voters heavily favor President Barack Obama and Democrats in general, according to nearly every poll taken before the election, and the Romney campaign is far behind its goal of 38 percent support.
Immigration isn't the top issue for Latino voters, panelists pointed out, though it is an important one that Romney needs to address. But tomorrow isn't the time, said Navarro, who advised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential bid and has been one of the most vocal critics of Romney on Latino outreach.
"I don't think tomorrow night is his speech to address immigration," Navarro said, adding that he'll have to address the issue eventually. "I pray and hope -- and I'm pretty sure immigration is not going to be mentioned tomorrow."
When he does talk about it, it needs to be with a new tone, after a bruising Republican primary in which Romney painted himself as an immigration hardliner, some panelists said.
"In many ways the campaign is just starting ... for a great many Americans, they're just tuning in," Ayres said. "Part of it depends on how he runs the campaign. His tone is critically important."
They also warned Romney not to pander, which Diaz-Balart said Obama and other Democrats do every election in promising immigration reform. Diaz-Balart endorsed Romney but acknowledges that he differs with him on support for comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act, both of which Romney opposes.
Shurtleff pointed out that some Republicans seem to be pandering in another way on immigration by taking cues from anti-immigration groups rather than from the majority of the population. Shurtleff is a Republican but also a critic of Arizona immigration law S.B. 1070, and he pushed for an immigration policy in his state meant to draw a clear contrast with that law. "Let's not throw out terms like 'anchor babies,'" he said, referring to a past effort by some Republicans to take away birthright citizenship for children born in the United States to undocumented parents.
Panelists advised Romney to continue to focus on the economy when addressing Latino voters, a strategy his campaign and the Republican National Committee plan to use. That plan could work, given the economy's disproportionate impact on Latinos, Diaz-Balart said.
"There is a moment when people start focusing on 'alright, where are we today, where do we want to be tomorrow, and is the leadership that we have today taking us where we want to be tomorrow?" he said.