WASHINGTON (AP) – Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign probably didn't need a reminder of how crucial Latino voters could be to her presidential campaign. She got one anyway from Republican Jeb Bush.
The former governor of Florida spoke fluent Spanish during his 2016 campaign kickoff this week, at which he introduced his wife, a native of Mexico, to an adoring crowd that cheered as he effortlessly deflected an attempt by immigration protests to interrupt his speech.
"Ayúdennos a emprender una campaña que les da la bienvenida," Bush said, which can be translated as, "Help us run a campaign that welcomes you."
Clinton will address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) on Thursday in Las Vegas at a time when Bush's bilingual pitch is prompting quiet pangs of concern among some Democratic strategists.
They worry that a campaign that successfully presents Bush as the product of his Hispanic-infused South Florida home could cut into their party's sizable demographic advantage with Latino voters — particularly in hard-fought states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
Bush comes across as "genuine and comfortable in his own skin," said David Axelrod, a former strategist to President Barack Obama. "If he hangs tough and survives (the primary), Democrats should be sober. He would be a formidable opponent."
Bush may be the white scion of a political dynasty with deep roots in New England, but he has adopted Hispanic culture as his own. He made his career in the bilingual mecca of Miami, Spanish is his primary language at home and he brags about buying cilantro to make Latin cuisine for his wife.
On the campaign trail, Bush switches seamlessly between English and Spanish when answering questions, his skills in the language honed during the two years he spent in Venezuela as a young man. He also travels with Raul Henriques, a fresh-faced "body man" recently hired because Bush wanted a Spanish speaker.
Republicans believe Bush could help their party close a yawning political gap among Latino voters. GOP nominee Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, the smallest margin in a decade. President George W. Bush, who had far weaker ties to the Hispanic community than his younger brother Jeb, earned as much as 40 percent of their vote during his 2004 re-election race.
Maintaining a broad Democratic advantage among one of the country's fastest-growing minority groups will be essential to Clinton's path to the White House. Almost 28.2 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential race, an increase of about 17 percent over 2012, according to an analysis of census data by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Clinton advisers have long singled Bush out from the rest of the crowded Republican field as a possible threat, arguing that his personal connection to the Latino community could help his campaign make inroads in several battleground states.
"If Republicans were to win Florida and Ohio and Colorado, it's hard to total up 270 for Democrats," longtime Clinton confident Harold Ickes told reporters in November.
For months, Clinton and her team have worked hard to develop and deepen relationships with Hispanic leaders. In May, she tapped Lorella Praeli, a leading immigrant-rights activist brought to the U.S. illegally as a young person, to lead outreach to Latino voters.
Less than a month after announcing her plans to enter the race, Clinton called for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Her position left little political wiggle room for Republicans open to an immigration overhaul, Bush included, who favor granting legal status for some of the 11 million workers in the country illegally but not full citizenship.
"We should offer hard-working, law-abiding immigrant families a path to citizenship," Clinton said during her kickoff speech last weekend. "Not second-class status."
Campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday, Bush said he would support citizenship for some immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and a pathway to legal status for their parents, a step Obama took by executive order three years ago. But Bush's efforts to woo Latinos may be complicated by the Republican primaries, where a vocal conservative minority holds outsized influence.
In an indication of the potential toxicity of the issue to his primary bid, Bush had no plans to mention immigration during his Tuesday kickoff speech. But he couldn't resist responding to the chants of protesters heckling him from the crowd with a pledge to tackle immigration legislation.
"I believe what I believe, and I believe in comprehensive immigration reform," he said in Iowa the following day. "People don't agree with me in my own party, not everybody, but, trust me, there are a lot of people that have a differing view."