Can Romney Get the Latino Votes He Needs to Win Florida?

After losing the South Carolina primary by a wide margin, Mitt Romney finds himself in desperate need of Latino votes in the looming Florida primary.

On Monday, the Romney campaign released a new Spanish language radio advertisement in Florida titled “Estoy,” or "I am."

A Romney campaign press release on the advertisement says "Romney is supported by leaders in Florida because he has the plan to turn around our economy, will stand up to the despotic regimes of the Castro brothers and Hugo Chavez, and is the one candidate who can take on President Obama."

Romney –along with all of the other Republican candidates – has struggled to appeal to the Latino audience.

But Romney's hard-line posturing on immigration and promise to veto the DREAM Act, his support of the border fence, and association with Kris Kobach, the former law professor behind Arizona’s controversial immigration law, have all put Romney in a deep hole with the Hispanic community.

Despite waning Latino support for President Barack Obama and simmering discontent with his administration’s failure to push any comprehensive immigration reform during his time in the White House, Obama and Democrats still enjoy considerable support from registered Latino voters.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, Obama would grab 68 percent of the Latino vote to Romney’s 23 percent in a hypothetical match-up.

The immigration issue has always been a thorn in Romney’s side.

While he has been labeled a flip-flopper in the past for his immigration stance, Romney now strongly opposes any immigration reform that leads to a path to legal status or citizenship, regardless of how long an undocumented immigrant has spent living in the country, whether they have American citizen family members or dependents, and their behavior and accomplishments.

This contrasts with the position of Newt Gingrich, his chief rival in Florida, who has advocated finding a way to legalize the status of law-abiding undocumented immigrants who have resided in the country for 25 years or more.

Romney has also come out against the DREAM Act, the proposed legislation that would legalize the status of people brought to the country as minors and were either attending college or enlisted in the military. Romney’s call to veto the legislation has drawn heat from Latino DREAM Act supporters across the country, with one activist openly confronting him during a stopover in New York.

“Mr. Romney’s position deriding the proposed DREAM Act is morally troubling. Supported by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, it would grant legal status to the children of illegal immigrants if they complete college or serve in the military,” wrote Peter Morici, a professor at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, on Fox “It would complement laws emerging in many states that grant in state tuition and other aid to such children.”

Fox News Latino's Senior Columnist Geraldo Rivera also highlighted Romeny's stance on the DREAM Act  as a "time bomb" that could sink his campaign among Latinos come November. 

Some Republican strategists see Romney sticking to his hard-line approach toward undocumented immigrants during the general election, but loosening up on other issues as way to appeal to moderates.

"I believe he´ll keep a very hard line on immigration in order not scare the conservative base," said David Johnson, a Republican consultant and CEO of Strategic Vision in Atlanta, according to the Huffington Post. "But he will seek moderates by emphasizing that he favors legal immigration, which does not mean much because it is something that everyone favors. And that makes him look moderate."

Newt Gingrich has been quick to take advantage, running a radio ad in Florida that labels Romney the most anti-immigrant of candidates, and forcing the Romney campaign to scramble. Earilier this month, Romney launched a Spanish-language television ad, in which his son, in flawless Spanish, tells viewers that his father believes in the American Dream and will make sure that the United States remains a land of opportunity. The campaign also hired former Marco Rubio staffer Alberto Martínez to help improve outreach to Latinos.

But news about Romney's Latino-targeted outreach found itself overshadowed by his controversial embrace of an endorsement by immigration hard-liner Kris Kobach, the architect of some of the strictest state immigration measures.

Kobach, who is the Kansas Secretary of State, authored measures that lay the groundwork for the immigration laws of such states as Arizona and Alabama.

So far, Romney's hopes have been riding on the endorsements from some of Florida’s major Latino establishment politicians (including Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Mario Diaz-Balart). His campaign is the only one that has advertisements across the state’s 10 media markets – more than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined --an expensive proposition.  Romney has spent $7 million  to date on advertising in the Sunshine State, according to the Associated Press.

One thing is for certain, the Florida primary will be the first 2012 contest in which Latino voters play a pivotal role – a role that many believe could be decisive come November. Florida’s diverse age and race demographics means that the state is a direct test of the broader appeal of the candidates across social groups.

The state is 22.5 percent Latino, and the Cuban American population in Miami-Dade County leans heavily Republican.

Since the Florida primary is a closed primary, allowing only registered Republicans to vote, the most influential Latino vote will come from the Cuban American population in South Florida.  Puerto Ricans, the second most populous group of Latinos that live primarily in Central Florida, traditionally lean more Democratic.

Even if Romney survives Gingrich's challenge, the Florida Latino vote is critical for his hopes in November.

The 2008 general elections emphasize this point.

President Obama won 57 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote, eclipsing Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 42 percent.  But Obama could not win the Cuban-American vote. McCain won 53 percent to Obama's 47 percent.

If Romney and the Republicans hope to change that result, they will need to figure out a way to attract more Latino voters.

Aware of the importance of Hispanics, the Republican National Committee (RNC) announced Thursday its new Hispanic outreach effort to draw prospective voters away from Obama, especially in key states like Florida.

“Hispanics in Florida are acutely aware of Obama’s failed economic policies and their devastating affects throughout the Latina community,” said Bettina Inclán, RNC Hispanic Outreach Director, according to a press release. “As far as our Hispanic efforts in the state, we're going to be working very closely with Florida to ensure we’re involving all the Latino communities throughout the state."

"We all know the importance of Hispanics in South Florida and the I-4 Corridor and throughout the different communities throughout the state. And Hispanics are going to get the Republican message in English and Spanish.”

One way Romney, if he is the eventual candidate, could ostensibly appeal to the Latino vote is by picking a vice-presidential candidate with a Hispanic background. One name that has been tossed around as a possible candidate is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

The freshman senator of Cuban descent has the distinct appeal of being a Republican Latino politician in a state with a large Latino population, which could help Romney gain some much needed votes. Besides his background, Rubio -- who has remained neutral in the primary contest, so far withholding his endorsement -- also has the support of the Tea Party, which would secure some of Romney’s conservative base.

“Thanks to media portraits of Tea Party members as tantrum-throwing ignoramuses with racist tendencies, the argument would be that Rubio can’t appeal to a broader spectrum of voters,” Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington Post. “This argument has some merit, but only if you haven’t heard Rubio speak or paid attention to his message. Rubio isn’t just a poster boy for the shrink-government contingent.”

Whether it's choosing a Latino running mate or loosening his tough immigration stance, Romney will need to pull in some of the Hispanic vote in key swing states if he hopes to win the presidency.

"It comes down to swing states and small margins. Hispanic voters are going to be swing voters in these very important states," Inclán said, according to Bloomberg.

Where Mitt Romney Stands on Latino Issues

Where Rick Santorum Stands on Latino Issues

Where Ron Paul Stands on Latino Issues

Where Newt Gingrich Stands on Latino Issues

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