10/10/2012 12:01 am ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

Colorado Latinos Still An Uphill Climb For Mitt Romney

DENVER, Colo. -- Edgar Antillon, 27, spent his Tuesday evening last week making phone calls at a field office in Thornton, Colo., near his home. He was one of about 15 people who came from work or home, plopped down at a long table and begun pitching Latino voters on the promise of a Mitt Romney presidency.

While he was one of the youngest of the bunch, he is also the chair of the Juntos Con Romney group for Adams County, a heavily-populated part of a critical swing state. Wearing a suit, he dialed phone numbers while his three children played in the corner. One, an 8-year-old girl, was an Obama fan last time around, but Antillon said he hopes she'll warm to the Republican Party by the time she turns voting age.

"Does it hurt me as a parent? Yeah," he said jokingly. "But I think if I believe in freedom I should allow them to be however they want."

A supervisor at a small security firm and the son of immigrants from Mexico, Antillon has always voted Republican. When he was younger, he considered being a Democrat, and he recognizes that most Latinos are of that political persuasion. He's now operating with the mindset that he and other Republicans can help Colorado's Latino population see the light.

"Being a Hispanic, that's what you're ingrained with: 'The Republicans are for the rich, and the Democrats are somehow the magic wand for the Hispanics,'" Antillon said. "And you know, as I got older and when I was able to vote I was able to see that's not necessarily the truth."

It's a common pitch from Republicans to Latino voters. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) spoke at the Republican National Convention about her party switch. She grew up a Democrat, but before a run for district attorney had lunch with her husband and two Republicans to talk about the issues. By the end, she said she'd changed her mind. "When we left that lunch, we got in the car and I looked over at Chuck and said, 'I'll be damned. We're Republicans,'" she said.

The Romney campaign has crafted its message to Latinos through Spanish-language ads, meetings with Romney's Spanish-speaking son Craig, phone-banking and other outreach efforts. Every ad focuses either on the economy or on family -- sometimes both -- and most say President Barack Obama has failed Latinos.

So far, though, it doesn't seem to be having much effect nationwide, or in Colorado, where Latinos make up 20 percent of the population and may influence whether the state goes red or blue. Nearly 70 percent of Colorado Latino voters say they are certain they would vote for Obama if the election was held now, while only 20 percent said they would vote for Romney, according to a tracking poll from Latino Decisions and advocacy group America's Voice released on Wednesday. Half strongly approve of the job Obama is doing as president, according to the same poll. And Romney is hurting himself with Latinos on immigration: more than two-thirds of voters told pollsters his policies on the issue made them less enthusiastic about him.

The poll took place mostly before Romney's debate performance last Wednesday, which gave him a bump in many national polls. Obama still holds a lead in Colorado. Colorado Republicans aren't delusional enough to think they can get to Obama's level of support with Latinos. Their goal is simply to narrow the gap.

The plan is to focus on the economy. The volunteers in the Thornton office said they often talk about how Romney's policies will help the job difficulties many Latinos face, mirroring the advertising from Republicans toward Latino voters. Unlike Democrats, they don't talk much about immigration.

Antillon said he tries to get voters "past that one issue," which he said is easier this year because of the bad economy. "This election I've seen a lot of Hispanics not even worried with immigration as much as they are with jobs, because it's pointless to come to a country with no jobs," he said.

Latinos have been disproportionately affected by the economy. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) talked about those struggles during a speech directed at Latinos the morning of the debate. Standing in a large room on the top floor of the National Western Complex, which hosts rodeos and other events, the Florida Republican of Cuban descent said Obama's "big government" plan "doesn't help the middle class, it buries the middle class." Though he stood in front of a sign that said "Juntos Con Romney," the crowd to whom Rubio spoke appeared to be mostly white.

The Colorado offices where the Obama and Romney campaigns are conducting Latino outreach are bland buildings in nondescript strip malls. The Obama field office in Commerce City is between a beauty salon and a Cricket Wireless store. There's a popular local restaurant, La Chiquita, near the corner, next to an E-Z Pawn that volunteers said they use as a landmark because most people in the area know where it is. On the wall is a large mural of Obama -- or at least a vague likeness -- painted by the artists from the tattoo parlor nearby.

The volunteers there work hard, but more to ensure that Latinos turn out to vote than to make sure they don't vote for Romney. Elvis Leon, 27, an Army veteran who goes to school at Regis University and is studying film production, volunteers two or three days a week for four-hour shifts. He started this summer after he happened upon a campaign event in one of his favorite restaurants, where he was recruited to come volunteer. He likes Obama's policies, especially Obamacare. He said he grew up in a household with two sick siblings -- both his brother and sister suffered from severe asthma -- and no insurance. "That's very common in my world," he said.

But Leon said he's concerned that some Latino voters aren't yet seeing the impact of the law, or of the president's other efforts.

"It's either they're pissed or they're waiting for results," Leon said of those who are unenthusiastic about Obama. "They're upset about the economy, but they don't know if anybody in particular will fix it, either. They're just kind of like, 'Romney, Obama, it doesn't matter.'"

At the Romney office in Thornton, one volunteer said she wasn't hearing a lot of support for Romney, although the voters she was calling weren't expected to be supporters. Sitting at a long table with "Juntos Con Romney" signs, Nancy Thompson, 54, a retired nurse who lives in Westminster, volunteers three or four times per week, usually for about five hours. She said she worries that Obama is making the country more socialist, and she hopes Latinos will support Romney based on his family values.

"They all think he's a rich white guy, which obviously he is a rich white guy," Thompson said. "But what I keep trying to tell them is that his family values and all are something that they should be more concerned with. It's going to affect their lives even more so than the general population as far as getting jobs, and the economy, and illegal immigration and the whole bit."

Another volunteer said she doesn't think Romney's Latino support numbers are as bleak as they sound. Margie Rebaza, 59, of Northglenn, is white but speaks Spanish during her day job in Westminster, where most of her customers are Latino. She said some Latinos are concerned about Romney's immigration policies "because they're listening to Univision."

But many of her Latino customers and friends support Romney, she said. There may be a simple explanation for the disconnect, she said: Republicans may be less likely to answer polls.

"They need to do exactly what his son is doing," Rebaza said, referring to smaller, Latino-focused events hosted by Spanish speaker Craig Romney. "They need to do what Obama's doing Thursday, where he's going to Sloan's Lake. That's in the middle of an area people can access. Hispanics, they're not going to go down there to Littleton or to Highlands Ranch. I think he needs to get out of those areas and come out and meet with the people."



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