Tampa, Fla. – The Republicans wanted to talk about the economy. The press wanted to talk about immigration.
In the first Republican National Convention daily briefing for Latino press, the RNC and campaign of presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney stressed the need to revitalize the economy.
But members of the Spanish-language media pressed the issue of immigration, and tried to challenge Texas Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco and New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu -- the two surrogates who appeared on behalf of the RNC -- on the GOP's push for strict enforcement.
Canseco and Sununu spoke of the “American Dream,” a “bankrupt economy,” and the confidence that Romney can offer “laws," enduring solutions to the immigration system that would improve programs involving guest workers and visas.
Their focus, to be sure, was unmistakably the economy.
But members of the press wanted to focus on undocumented youth, what they characterized as the harsh immigration rhetoric by GOP candidates, and a Republican party platform that recently incorporated calls for tough enforcement of immigration laws.
For critics, the bilingual press conference on a rainy Monday epitomized the “disconnect” and divide between Romney and Latinos.
For Romney and GOP supporters, the focus on the economy is what Latinos -- like other Americans -- worry about and want their political leaders to address.
Julio Ricardo Varela, founder of Latinorebels.com, an independent Latino politics and cultural website, says that Latino voters should concentrate on unemployment and education, but he knows it’s difficult to overlook immigration -- which some, including himself, view as “almost a civil rights issue.”
Polls back both views. In polls, likely Latino voters say they care more about jobs and the economy than immigration. At the same time, however, they indicate that they care about the tone used to address immigration, and they say they support immigration policies that call for enforcement as well as provide a pathway to legalization.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” Varela said. “I just think Mitt Romney doesn’t have the political courage to take immigration on right now.”
“There is just something about it,” said Varela said of the immigration issue. “My head tells me something, but my heart tells me something else – I think people vote with their emotions more than their heads.”
Canseco took exception to the suggestion that the campaign and the party were dodging the issue of immigration.
Canseco, the representative of Texas's 23rd district, which has a 70 percent Latino population, believes talk about the economy does not mean he or the Republican Party “diminish other issues.”
But, he said, “let’s look and focus at what is most near and dear to all of us.”
“Let me be very frank,” he told Fox News Latino after the press conference. “The biggest issues are jobs, the economy, healthcare and education. We are talking about Americans, we are talking about citizens, we are talking about people that this is their home.”
Canseco and Sununu believe that Romney still has time to reach out to Latino voters in the next two months until Election Day. With a national unemployment rate for Latinos of 10.3 percent, higher than the 8.3% national rate, Canseco, Sununu and the Republicans are banking that the “immigrant entrepreneurial spirit” prevalent among Latinos will eventually lead to victory.
“When people vote on November 6 there is going to be a surprising increase in the percentage of Hispanics and immigrants who do vote for Mitt Romney,” Sununu said.
The conference coincided with the release of a new Romney campaign ad featuring the candidate's son, Craig, speaking in fluent Spanish and addressing Latino voters.
The ad was featured at the press briefing, and highlighted the Romney family's connection to Mexico and the candidate's commitment to the "American Dream."
In Spanish, the younger Romney said his father "will fight to put our country back on track and create jobs."
"He greatly values that we are a nation of immigrants," the son said about his father. "My grandfather George was born in Mexico. For my family, the greatness of America is how we all respect each other and help one another."
Jennifer Korn, who is president of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative organization, and who was Director for Hispanic Affairs for the White House under George W. Bush, believes more voter and media attention should be on President Barack Obama and what she sees as the Democrats' use of the immigration issue to "scare" Latinos into voting.
“Obama is pandering,” she said of Obama’s ‘hammering’ away on the immigration issue as a talking point to the Hispanic community. “He pushed healthcare reform through…if he cared about immigration why didn’t he get that through when he had a veto-proof Congress?"
Follow Bryan Llenas on Twitter @Bryan_Llenas for up to date information from the RNC convention in Tampa.