MIAMI -- Hispanic evangelicals are taking their politics to the pulpit -- and exposing a new weakness in one of the only Latino strongholds for Republicans.
To sway the outcome of the Republican primary in Florida and beyond, pastors at hundreds of churches affiliated with the National Latino Evangelical Coalition are exhorting their congregations in key battleground states "to vote, to get engaged, to get others engaged, and to go to the voting booths," the group's president, Gabriel Salguero, told the Huffington Post.
Historically, that would be good news for the Republicans. United with them on socially conservative family values, as Ronald Reagan first noted, evangelicals are the group of Latino voters that has shown some of the strongest support for the GOP.
But this time, it's different.
"We focus on three major issues," Salguero said, "which are: protecting poverty-focused programs domestically and abroad; advocating for immigration reform, comprehensive and humane immigration reform; and advocating for educational equity so that your educational attainment is not determined by the zip code where you were born."
That puts them at odds with the majority of Republicans on almost all fronts.
"We believe some difficult decisions need to be made, but not on the backs of the poor and the most vulnerable," Salguero said. "For us it's not a political agenda. It's a moral issue. We're Christians."
This divergence could upend the historically-reliable Hispanic evangelical support for Republican candidates, political analyst Steffen Schmidt of the University of Iowa told the Huffington Post.
"It may be that the Hispanic evangelicals are really a different trend within the evangelical movement," Schmidt said, "that is not going to necessarily find in the Republican Party a candidate who meets both their faith-based concerns -- issues like abortion and so on, which probably are pretty important as well -- but also speak to the social justice aspects of Christianity."
Nearly 22 million Latinos are eligible to vote, although only 9.7 million cast votes in the last presidential election. Almost 70 percent identify with the Democratic Party, according to a recent Pew survey, but Hispanic evangelicals -- estimated to be some 11 million of the Hispanic population -- have historically voted more conservatively. While Latinos overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama in 2008, he only won by a slim margin among Hispanic evangelicals. That was an important change from four years earlier, when George W. Bush won 60 percent of the Hispanic evangelical vote. So far, though, the candidates in the Republican nomination race are espousing positions that seem almost deliberately aimed at alienating Latino voters.
The front-runner, Mitt Romney, has taken a schizophrenic approach to touchy Hispanic issues. He has defended South Carolina's tough immigration law calling on cops to question anyone they suspect is an illegal immigrant, opposes a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, and has vowed, if elected, to veto the DREAM Act, which would offer a chance for children of illegal immigrants to become citizens for performing military service or completing two years of college.
On the flip side, Romney was one of only two candidates to attend a Hispanic Republican meeting in Tampa and, last week, he launched a Spanish-language ad in Florida calling America a "land of opportunity."
Monday night, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney repeated his hard-line stances during the candidate debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but sought to explain that his position didn't make him "anti-immigrant."
"Look, I want people to know I love legal immigration," Romney said. "Almost all of us in this room are descendants of immigrants or are immigrants ourselves. Our nation is stronger and more vibrant by virtue of a strong legal immigration system. But to protect our legal immigration system we have got to protect our borders and stop the flood of illegal immigration and I will not do anything that opens up another wave of illegal immigration."
Both Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) take a hard line on undocumented immigrants. Both oppose any kind of amnesty. Paul even wants to end what he calls "birthright citizenship," denying children born in the U.S. of illegal immigrant parents the 14th Amendment right to U.S. citizenship. Texas Gov. Rick Perry also opposes the DREAM Act at a national level.
Only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) seems to be listening to Latino voters. He boldly suggested a "path to legality," although not exactly citizenship, for longtime undocumented immigrants with roots in their communities. But, he, too, praised South Carolina's immigrant crackdown law.
It's a marked shift for the Republicans. Former Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush favored creating a road to citizenship for some undocumented workers. So did McCain, during his unsuccessful 2008 run.
Despite the threat posed by the new Hispanic evangelical movement, the conservative-right Hispanic Leadership Network -- co-chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Carlos Gutierrez, commerce secretary under President George W. Bush -- is telling Republicans that disenchantment with Obama offers an opening for the GOP to regain Latino support.
"Combining the fact that Obama has broken his promises in the Hispanic community and is viewed as weaker along with the fact that conservatives are engaging the Hispanic community, there's absolutely an opportunity for a candidate to get more than what McCain did," HLN's Executive Director, Jennifer Korn, told the Huffington Post. "Hispanics are absolutely still shopping for who they'd like to support."