This summer, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney courted, and sometimes stumbled in his pursuit of, Latino voters.
Romney's Spanish-language ads took a battering in the critical month before the Republican National Convention. Hyper-literal translation left one key TV spot that aimed to raise questions about the economic health of ordinary Americans asking "Van bien?" The phrase amounted to a sort of Spanish-for-cyborgs way of saying what most Spanish-speakers would express as, "¿Las cosas están bien?"
Then, in mid-August, while describing himself as a fan of tropical fruits on a Miami radio station, Romney mistakenly used a Cuban slang word for vagina. The very same day, the former Massachusetts governor visited a well-known Miami fresh juice stand with Tea Party Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and drew a cheering crowd. But before the day's end, reporters discovered a problem: In the late 1990s, Reinaldo Bermudez, the owner of El Palacio De Los Jugos, or The Juice Palace, plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and spent time in prison, according to public records.
Collectively the incidents were just what a candidate in Romney's position -- 30 to 40 points behind President Obama with Latino voters in most polls -- doesn't need. With less than 70 days left before the November election, the situation has some political observers wondering why Romney hasn't tapped the Latino political operative team principally responsible for the record-setting share of the Latino vote that former President George W. Bush secured in 2000 and 2004.
Neither the Romney campaign, nor the RNC's Director of Hispanic Outreach, Bettina Inclán, responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
"I was a little surprised when no one approached me," said Lionel Sosa, a San Antonio-based political consultant and the unofficial but widely recognized chief of the Bush Latino strategy team.
In San Antonio and places beyond, Sosa is also known as, "El Papa" -- the pope -- of Republican outreach to Latinos.
In 1978, Sosa got his start with one of Texas' U.S. senators, Republican John Tower. During Tower's earlier terms he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, laws that deeply shaped the lives of African Americans and Latinos.
But Tower was a Texan who, before moving to Washington, had grown accustomed to drinking his after-work beers in bars frequented by mostly blue-collar Hispanic men. Sosa decided Tower should sit down in those bars and talk politics. Then Sosa had Tower do something similar at Latino community events and business-owner gatherings, with veterans groups and even Latino civil rights groups, he said. Tower also happened to be a supporter of bi-lingual education in schools.
The strategy -- showing Latino voters Tower was comfortable, concerned and capable -- worked so well that Tower won 37 percent of the Latino vote, Sosa said. That was more than four times what any other Texas Republican had ever claimed. It was just point less than the 38 percent of the Latino vote the Romney campaign says it needs to win the presidency.
After the election, Sen. Tower told then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan that he should add Sosa to his Latino outreach team immediately, Sosa said. Reagan did. So did President George H.W. Bush and his son, President George W. Bush.
The younger Bush won 35 percent of the Latino vote after the 2000 campaign, according to national exit polling data. He picked up 40 percent in 2004. Bush set a Republican record that no candidate has since topped. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the next GOP presidential candidate, won 31 percent in 2008.
Frank Guerra, another San Antonio-based political consultant who was part of the core three-man team that helped the later Bush win a record-setting share of the Latino vote, declined to comment when contacted by The Huffington Post. During the 2000 campaign, Guerra hired Mike Madrid, then a political operative just a few years out of Georgetown University and still rabidly enthusiastic about the ideas behind his senior thesis.
With almost every ethnic group, as successive generations move away from the immigrant experience and become more "American" and affluent, they will join the Republican Party, Madrid told The Huffington Post Wednesday. They become more concerned about schools, taxes and other "middle-class" issues, he said -- Latinos are no different.
"That's part of the reason I've never been a believer that you need to do a lot of advertising in Spanish," said Madrid, who after the Bush campaign went on to become the head of California's Republican Party. Today he runs a Sacramento-based political firm. "The approach really has to be more nuanced," he said, "more bicultural than bilingual, respectful and inclusive."
This week, the Republican Party decided to back a platform that includes a call for mandatory use of an employment eligibility database, an English-only law, expanding the border fence, and eliminating laws that allow young undocumented immigrants to attend college at in-state tuition rates. Both Madrid and Sosa said this platform, coupled with Romney's position on immigration, represents a real challenge for the GOP if it wants to appeal to Latino voters. The debate around immigration in the 2012 election has produced moments that made both men shudder, they said.
Sosa noted that Bush had a much more moderate stance on immigration, leaving room for Latinos to then consider his policy positions on other issues.
And, in 2000 and again in 2004, Sosa, Madrid and Guerra were involved in virtually all the broader campaign's decisions.
"We truly had a seat at the table," Sosa said.
Latinos were seen as a natural part of the Bush constituency, rather than a special side project, Madrid said, describing it as a very effective, Republican-style rejection of identity-only politics.
Still, if anyone from the Republican Party or the Romney campaign had called him this year for help or advice, Madrid said there's little that he would suggest Romney do differently.
The presidential election in 2012 is far different than it was in 2000, Madrid noted. Today, the nation is more polarized. The election will come down to a far smaller group of swing states and voters.
"Truthfully, if he wants to win, Romney should probably run even harder on the illegal immigration issue," Madrid said, "At this point, it is going to be easier to pick up white, blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt than it will be to pick up Latino votes."
When Sosa looks at the Romney campaign, he sees a candidate who is a stellar businessman, father, husband and patriot, he said. Sosa also sees a candidate who is formal, measured, and sometimes even awkwardly wooden and distant.
Romney has grown too reliant on prominent Latino Republicans and his Spanish-fluent son, Craig Romney, to make his case with Hispanic voters, Sosa said.
"The Latino voter needs to hear from him, not his son, not the surrogates, not a voice over -- never a voice over," Sosa said. "He needs to make that connection, eyeball to eyeball."
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If not the most memorable moment of the run-up to the Florida GOP primary, the most comical one had to be Mitt Romney's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/24/self-deportation-romney_n_1228296.html" target="_hplink">oxymoronic addition</a> to the English language: self-deportation. At a Florida debate and in response to a question regarding if whether to enforce his position on illegal immigration, he would support mass deportations, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/24/mitt-romney-florida-gop-debate-self-deportation_n_1227129.html" target="_hplink">Romney answered</a> "Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here." Romney's use of the term 'self-deportation' and his genuine belief in it as a viable means to deal with the 13 million undocumented immigrants who would not be allowed to remain in the U.S., led to substantial social media outcry, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/25/gingrich-romney-self-deportation-plan_n_1230987.html" target="_hplink">an attack by his primary opponent, Newt Gingrich</a> (to be expected), and a measure of agreement from fellow candidate Rick Santorum. Amazing.
Newt Gingrich At Café Versailles
Newt Gingrich didn't waste any time in 2012. In early January, he visited Little Havana's Café Versailles restaurant, a traditional stop for politicians looking to rally support among Miami's Cuban-American population. Gingrich drank Cuban coffee and conversed with the restaurant staff, who by now must be used to politicians stopping by to score points among Latino voters. Strangely enough, they <a href="http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/01/in-miami-caffeinated-newt-gingrich-talks-learning-english-cuba-and-chats-with-marco-rubios-dentist-a.html" target="_hplink">applauded once he was finished with his coffee</a>. GIngrich didn't miss a beat and told his audience how President of the U.S. his goal will be "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/14/gingrich-republican-candidates-florida_n_1205463.html" target="_hplink">to create a Cuban Spring that is even more exciting than the Arab Spring.</a>" He also talked about this stance on immigration, which he qualifies as <a href="http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/01/in-miami-caffeinated-newt-gingrich-talks-learning-english-cuba-and-chats-with-marco-rubios-dentist-a.html" target="_hplink">more "humane" than the positions of his GOP primary opponents</a>. Nothing like spicy politicking to go with your <em>café con leche</em>.
The 'Three Amigos' Endorse Mitt Romney
An crucial moment in the Florida race was the endorsement of Mitt Romney by Florida's self-proclaimed <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/29/us-usa-politics-romney-idUSTRE7AS1XZ20111129" target="_hplink">"three amigos," </a>Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The Miami Herald calls this the <a href="http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/11/28/2522516/romney-picks-up-key-south-florida.html" target="_hplink">"ultimate Cuban-American endorsement trifecta</a>." But this too led to controversy as these three Cuban-American politicians who now support Romney's candidacy -- and its conservative approach to immigration reform and threatened DREAM act veto -- have track records as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-florida-latino-republicans_n_1233613.html?ref=latino-politics" target="_hplink">advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and passing the DREAM Act</a>. "Those three in particular have had a history of supporting measures like the DREAM Act ... but everyone wants stability in the Republican party and they likely think Romney is the most likely to provide that," said Kristian Ramos, a policy director at the NDN & New Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-florida-latino-republicans_n_1233613.html?ref=latino-politics" target="_hplink">to The Huffington Post</a>. In the 2008 primary the trio endorsed Sen. John McCain -- over Romney -- due in part to his own advocacy for immigration reform.
NextGen Latino GOPers
A new generation of Latino leaders is emerging in Florida politics. Cuban-American senator, Marco Rubio, is undoubtedly the most well-known figure in this new emerging political group. "Obviously, probably Marco Rubio is on the top of the list in terms of young Hispanics leading the effort in the state," conservative activist Jeb Bush Jr., the son of Florida's former governor and nephew of former President George W. Bush, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/27/florida-primary-2012-latinos-gop_n_1236450.html?ref=latino-voices" target="_hplink">told The Huffington Post.</a> Rubio's name comes up in every list of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/marco-rubio-vp-gop-candidates-florida-primary_n_1233480.html" target="_hplink">possible vice presidential candidates</a>. Thus far, however, he has <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/marco-rubio-the-big-get-i_n_1224646.html" target="_hplink">remained neutral</a> in the primary race. Other Latinos who are gaining influence in Florida's Republican and conservative circles include <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/27/florida-primary-2012-latinos-gop_n_1236450.html?ref=latino-voices" target="_hplink">Rep. David Rivera, who's backing cNewt Gingrich, Florida House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera and state Rep. Erik Fresen.</a>
Latino Vote Takes Center Stage At CNN's GOP Debate
Last Thursday's GOP debate confirmed that the Latino vote is a dominant factor in the Florida primary. From the earliest moments of the debate, issues such as immigration reform, the DREAM Act, relations with Cuba, Puerto Rico's status, Latinos who could serve in a Republican Cabinet, and more were catnip to the candidates who were each seeking to wow the audience. Gingrich stood strong in his attack that Romney is the most "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-immigration-florida-debate_n_1235344.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">anti-immigrant</a>" candidate in the GOP race. Romney defended himself by calling the comments "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-immigration-florida-debate_n_1235344.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">inflammatory and inappropriate</a>." Romney then went on to criticize a Gingrich TV ad as an example of "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-immigration-florida-debate_n_1235344.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">over the top rhetoric</a>." The debate turned to focus on Cuba a few times, with Romney saying, "It is time for us to strike for freedom in Cuba, and I will do so as president." Gingrich, who had appeared earlier at Florida International University, reiterated his <a href="http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2012/01/25/newt-gingrich-criticizes-obama-chavez-and-castro-in-florida-talk/" target="_hplink">support for a 'Cuban Spring'</a> if he is elected president.
Gingrich's Spanish-Language Radio Bomb Throwing
In an effort to win the Latino vote, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/newt-gingrich-spanish-lan_n_1217435.html?ref=latino-politics" target="_hplink">Newt Gingrich came out with a radio ad in Spanish</a> perfectly attuned to the local audience in his reiterated stance against the Castro brothers' regime in Cuba. Comically, the ad also tried to associate Mitt Romney to the local hatred of Cuba's regime, by criticizing Romney's 2008 use of a phrase often associated with Fidel Castro, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/newt-gingrich-spanish-lan_n_1217435.html?ref=latino-politics" target="_hplink">"patria o muerte, venceremos," which translates to "fatherland or death, we shall overcome."</a> But, perhaps aware that further down the road, other Latino voters will be more interested in immigration reform than Cuban relations, Gingrich went for broke and <a href="http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/01/in-miami-newt-gingrich-goes-up-on-spanish-language-radio-bashing-mitt-romney.html" target="_hplink"> labeled Mitt Romney as 'anti-immigrant'</a> in the ad.
Romney's Son Tries To Help Papa Romney Connect With Latino Voters
While campaigning in Hialeah, Florida, Romney gave the crowd what they wanted to hear, speaking forcefully of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/29/mitt-romney-pitch-cuban-americans_n_1240511.html?ir=Latino Voices&ref=latino-voices" target="_hplink">need to defeat the current dictators in Cuba and Venezuela.</a> So far, so good. But then he asked his young son, Craig, to speak to the mostly Cuban-American crowd in Spanish. Stepping up to the mic, Craig said, "<a href="http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/01/29/sheldon-alberts-hispanics-could-give-florida-to-romney-white-house-to-obama/" target="_hplink">Mi papá no habla español.</a>"
Candidates Make Their Case For Latino Conservatives
At January's Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami, both Gingrich and Romney delivered speeches with the express aim of attracting the conservative Latino voter, specifically Florida's Cuban-Americans. Romney spoke passionately about freedom, which is a key issue for Cubans in the U.S. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/27/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-latinos_n_1237063.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">given that so many fled the authoritarian Castro regime in Cuba</a>. Gingrich also spoke about freedom, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/27/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-latinos_n_1237063.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">and tried to outdo Romney with his vocal support for a 'Cuban spring'</a> and regime change in the island some 90 miles away.
Ron Paul On Immigration
Distancing himself from the harsh, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/fernando-espuelas/in-republican-debates-ide_b_1220288.html" target="_hplink">anti-immigrant rhetoric that's characterized this year's Republican primaries</a>, Ron Paul voiced a clear and more compassionate view regarding the subject during a conference in Nevada, where the Texas congressman said he favors a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/ron-paul-immigration-nevada-caucus-2012_n_1247589.html" target="_hplink">policy that doesn't rely on "barbed-wire fences and guns on our border."</a> Paul criticized politicians for blaming immigrants for the current economic situation in the country. "When things go badly, individuals look for scapegoats," Paul said <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/ron-paul-immigration-nevada-caucus-2012_n_1247589.html" target="_hplink">according to the Huffington Post</a>. "Hispanics, the immigrants who have come in, are being used as scapegoats." He went on to compare the current anti-immigrant rhetoric to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/ron-paul-immigration-nevada-caucus-2012_n_1247589.html" target="_hplink">Nazi Germany's targeting of Jews in the 1930s.</a> Paul said he was against laws that would require people to carry around identity papers to prove their legal status in the country.
John McCain Urges GOP Candidates To Adopt More Humane Approach To Immigration
In an interview with Univision, Sen. John McCain said that Republican candidates should adopt a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/john-mccain-mitt-romney-self-deportation_n_1257368.html" target="_hplink">"very humane approach" to immigration in order to secure Latino votes.</a> McCain, who endorsed Mitt Romney earlier this year has since distanced himself from the candidate's stance on immigration and even <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/john-mccain-mitt-romney-self-deportation_n_1257368.html" target="_hplink"> publicly criticized Romney's "self-deportation" plan.</a> McCain, like Romney, opposes the DREAM Act.
Romney Names Immigration Hard Liner As Honorary Chairman
Romney named former Governor Pete Wilson-- a well known immigration hard-liner-- as Honorary Chairman of his California campaign. "I'm honored to have Governor Pete Wilson's support, because he's one of California's most accomplished leaders," Romney said on his website <a href="http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2012/02/06/mitt-romney-names-former-gov-pete-wilson-immigration-hardliner-as-honorary/" target="_hplink">as reported by Fox News Latino.</a> "As governor of California from 1991 to 1999, he led California from the depths of recession to prosperous economic recovery." But former Gov. Wilson is not only remembered for his economic policies, but also for his <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/08/mitt-romney-immigration-antonio-villaraigosa_n_1262552.html/" target="_hplink">hostile stance against undocumented immigrants in the mid 90s.</a> Wilson supported <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/harsh-immigration-laws_n_1073576.html" target="_hplink">Proposition 187</a> in 1994, which essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state's economy. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. Prop 187 was ultimately blocked by federal court.