09/04/2012 10:56 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

"Trotting Out a Brown Face": Is Either Party Taking Latinos Seriously?

If you listened closely to the speakers at last week's Republican National Convention in Tampa, you might have noticed that more than a few speakers peppered their addresses with words in Spanish. On Wednesday, there was New Mexico's Mexican-American governor Susana Martinez, the nation's first Latina state chief executive, abandoning her teleprompter and staring directly into the camera, declaring "Todo es posible en America" ("Everything is possible in America"). And on Friday, in his widely praised address, Florida senator Marco Rubio, like Martinez, one of the GOP's rising Latino stars, evocatively quoted his Cuban father, in Spanish, "Son, you can become anything you want here because you are an American."

More striking, perhaps, was the appearance of Mitt Romney's son, Craig, who'd previously starred in a Spanish-language campaign video for his father, and who briefly recounted - in his own crisp fluent Spanish - how his two years living and working abroad in conservative-led Chile had shaped his view of how much Latinos and mainstream Americans have in common. And there were other signs as well: a slickly produced campaign video, "Juntos con Romney" ("Together with Romney"), that showcased all of the party's Hispanic leaders, each of them extolling the GOP nominee. Rubio and Martinez appeared, but so did Nevada governor Brian Sandoval and the troika of Republican Cuban-American legislators that dominates Florida's Latino landscape, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehten and the Diaz -Ballart brothers, Lincoln and Mario. It was a true love fest.

Prior to the convention, Los Angeles' Democratic mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one of Obama's chief Latino surrogates, had warned Republicans that they needed to do more than "trot out a brown face" if they expected to woo Latino voters. There's some truth in that. On the whole, the Tampa event was rather long on personal testimonies and convention atmospherics and exceedingly short on policy, and that applied Latino issues as well. No one touched on one of the themes that is likely to occupy center stage in Charlotte this week - namely immigration reform. And education, a top Latino priority according to polls, was highlighted only by former Florida governor Jeb Bush (who also briefly spoke in Spanish) but he made scant reference to a population with such a disproportionately high percentage of high school drop-outs.

But this seeming neglect of Latino policy specifics is actually indicative of Romney's calculated approach. On the one hand, he's softened his earlier view that illegal immigrants simply need to "self-deport" and will not be granted leniency; he's even suggested that he might uphold Obama's recent executive order granting some illegal immigrants a reprieve. On the other hand, he's resisted the entreaties of Rubio and Martinez - as well as George W. Bush-era policy stalwarts Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, among others - to break new policy ground on the illegal immigration issue by endorsing some version of an amnesty program. In fact, nothing Romney's says one way or the other will protect him from Democratic charges, to be amplified this week in Charlotte , that he's hostage to the GOP far right on immigration. And since the 2012 GOP platform clearly states the party's opposition to an amnesty of any kind, Romney's campaign is prepared for more hostile fire.

But if the campaign is worried, you wouldn't know it. His advisers are betting that Romney can so dominate Obama among White voters that he won't have to do much better than John McCain did with Latino voters in 2008: in the low-thirties perhaps, and perhaps slightly higher in key swing states like Colorado, but nowhere near the 40-44% that Bush captured in 2004. In fact, depending on the poll, Romney is either close to obtaining that share of the vote, or is likely to, if he can convince most of the undecided Latinos to swing his way. That's what happened in 2004 when John Kerry stopped campaigning among Latino voters during the last two months of the election, and most Latino independents flocked to Bush. Obama made sure that didn't happen in 2008 by launching an unprecedented $20 million Spanish-language television campaign that portrayed former immigration reform champion McCain as a racist - and it worked, leaving the former Arizona senator humiliated.

But the scenario in 2012 is quite different. After four years of continual disappointments - no real progress on immigration reform and persistent double-digit Latino unemployment - there's a new opening for the GOP among Latino independents - about 40% of the total - on the economy. That first became apparent in 2010 midterms, when GOP candidates won a whopping 39% of the Latino vote. What was especially striking about that outcome was that it wasn't due to Latino voters as a whole staying home: Latino turn-out reached a record level for a mid-term election, but many of those voters seemed as fed up as the rest of the country with joblessness and the deficit. That mood helped to elect conservative candidates, including the likes of Martinez and Rubio, even though the GOP was extolling Arizona's harsh crackdown law SB 1070 and suggesting no compromise of any kind on immigration reform.

2010 also suggested something else: shared ethnic background could go a long way toward easing Latino concerns over conservative Republicans, far more than Democrats seemed to realize. Rubio won 55% of the Latino vote in Florida, nearly equal the 56% Obama had won - and crushed his two opponents. Martinez won almost 40% in a state in which the previous GOP gubernatorial candidate had won barely half that much. And having Latinos on the ticket also seemed to help non-Latino candidates. In Florida, for example, Rick Scott also won 39% of the Latino vote, basking in the enthusiasm generated by Rubio's candidacy and the generalized discontent with Democratic incumbents.

That, in effect, is the Romney gambit - and gamble. Surround yourself with prominent and popular GOP Latino leaders, show respect for the community by freely speaking in Spanish, emphasize family values, and try to fold the Latino story into the broader narrative of America as a "nation of immigrants," without getting into the messy issue of just how some of these immigrants had arrived - and how the nation's policy might look, in one case or the other.

Will it work? Only time will tell. But if the goal is merely to shift the needle 2-3 points in key Latino-rich swing states like Nevada and Colorado, or battleground Florida, all of which Obama captured handily in 2008, but which are now up for grabs, he's got a real shot. And Democrats, despite their rhetoric, are clearly worried. That's one reason they chose San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, whose dynamism and charisma remind you right away of Rubio, as their keynote speaker. He's virtually unknown, even in Democratic circles, but he's young, bright and Latino; in fact, he's the first Latino keynote speaker in presidential convention history.

Apparently, with so little to actually show Latinos for his four years in office, it's not just Republicans who are hoping that "trotting out a brown face" can somehow make the difference.