In the hours leading up to the Nevada cuacus, GOP hopefuls made their last appeals to voters in Nevada, where residents have struggled with the nation’s highest unemployment and foreclosure rates.
And in Nevada, the candidates also competed for support in a swing state that has one of the nation’s fastest-growing Hispanic communities.
Latinos make up 26.5 percent of Nevada’s 2.7 million residents. That is higher than the Latino share – 16.3 percent – of the population nationwide. There are 224,000 eligible Hispanic voters in Nevada—the 12th-largest Hispanic eligible-voter population nationally.
“The number of Latino Republicans is fairly small [in Nevada], but [overall] Latinos are a swing vote in a swing state,” said Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, the oldest Latino civil rights group in the United States. “The Hispanic population in Nevada has exploded in the last decade, and it continues to grow.”
Both major political parties have been courting the state's Latinos since last year.
The GOP launched an anti-Obama media campaign aimed at Latinos in Nevada, and other states where their numbers are growing. The ad campaign criticized Obama's handling of the economy -- a tactic that the GOP is continuing to push this year.
Obama campaign supporters are running ads portraying GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney as a multimillionaire who looks down on the poor and on immigrants.
“We’re very concerned about the anti-immigrant anti-Latino tone coming out of the Republican debate,” Navarrete said. “The tone got modified in Florida, of course, but stay tuned.”
Unlike Florida, where Romney’s well-documented hard line on immigration did little to hurt him with Hispanic voters, who constitute 11 percent of that state’s registered Republicans, Nevada’s Latinos are overwhelmingly Democrat.
Another key difference is that in contrast to Florida, where Mexicans make up 15 percent of the Latino population, in Nevada, Mexicans make up 78 percent, notes the Center for American Progress.
While the Silver State’s Latinos care deeply about what candidates propose for improving the economy – Latino unemployment in Nevada towered at nearly 19 percent about a year ago, compared with the general state rate of 14 percent – they also have proven to pay close attention to candidate comments that strike them as offensive to Latinos.
In 2010, Nevada’s Latino voters were seen as pivotal to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s election victory over his Republican challenger, Sharron Angle, who angered many Latinos with her depiction of undocumented immigrants as dangerous criminals, and her comment to Latino school kids that some of them “look Asian.”
A Newsweek story observed: “Her campaign evidently made a calculus: that alienating Hispanic voters mattered less than galvanizing conservative, get-tough-on-the-border whites. That may have been a critical misstep.”
Angle’s rhetoric was believed to have driven many Latinos to vote, to ensure she would not win.
“That would bolster the argument, made by many advocates,” Newsweek said, “that Hispanics are sufficiently engaged and wield enough electoral muscle to punish candidates who offend them with divisive rhetoric.”
Some observers believe Romney, who carried Nevada in the 2008 GOP caucus, again will do well in the state among Republicans.
A new poll in Nevada shows Romney has commanding support from prospective Republican caucus-goers over rival Newt Gingrich, just days before the GOP meets to allocate the state's 28 presidential convention delegates. The poll, by the Cannon Survey Center at the University of Nevada, was conducted just before Romney's Florida primary win over Gingrich.
But as far as the battle for Nevada’s Latino vote in the general election – that’s another matter, some Latino observers say.
Romney has been the most vocal proponent of strict immigration enforcement, promising that as president, he would veto any measure, including the DREAM Act, that would give a break to undocumented immigrants.
On Thursday, undocumented students, who call themselves DREAMers, held a protest outside Romney's Nevada campaign headquarters to urge the state's Latinos "to veto Romney."
"The Latino vote cannot be bought off [by Romney] by merely showing up to a Univision set," the protest organizers said in a statement.
"Florida is not Nevada, or New Mexico or Colorado or any of the other hard-fought swing states," said New York DREAMer Cesar Vargas, a 27-year-old law school graduate who was brought to the country illegally when he was five years old. "Hispanics will stay united in these states in their fight against Romney's vision."
Gingrich, who himself has taken tough stances on many aspects of immigration, sought to distinguish himself from Romney, especially in Florida, where he ran an ad saying his main rival was “anti-immigrant.”
Some of Nevada’s Republicans have watched the rhetoric on immigration with concern.
“If I were a Latino Republican, I would really cross [Romney] off my list,” said Fernando Romero, president of the nonpartisan Las Vegas-based group Hispanics in Politics, according to the Washington Times.
The Romney campaign has said that the candidate is not anti-immigrant, that he simply wants to see immigration laws enforced and those who break them made to deal with the consequences.
In a speech to a Latino group in Nevada, GOP contender Rep. Ron Paul of Texas criticized politicians who blame immigrants for causing the country’s economic problems.
“When things go badly, individuals look for scapegoats,” Paul said. “Hispanics, the immigrants who have come in, are being used as scapegoats.”
“If an individual is found to be breaking the law, serious consideration should be given for them to return," he told the audience. "But I would think 99 percent of people who come here come because they believe in the American dream."
On a national level, Republicans are looking to keep Obama from again winning a majority of Hispanic votes.
"Hispanics are a key constituency that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States," said Rick Wiley, director of the Republican National Committee, in a telephonic press conference Friday about Latino voters in Nevada.
RNC officials say they are determined not to concede the Hispanic vote to Obama this year. Like many of the GOP candidates vying to be the party's nominee for the presidential election, RNC officials say they believe they can attract Latino voters with plans to improve their quality of life.
"Latinos are bearing the brunt" of Obama's failed economic policies, said RNC Hispanic Outreach Director Bettina Inclán. "A majority of Latinos believe the economic downturn has hit them the hardest, and this is particularly true of Latinos in Nevada."
Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @Liz_Llorente
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached email@example.com