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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