Mitt Romney addressed a luncheon hosted by the Latino Coalition Wednesday, a conservative group of business owners. Speaking in a lavish marble hall with flags celebrating America’s great explorers on the walls and free tequila on the audience’s lunch tables (the group’s chairman, Hector Barreto, owns a liquor company), Romney’s speech was notable for what it left out: Immigration was not mentioned once, either in the address or in a pre-screened Q&A session.
Instead, Romney focused his remarks on education, outlining a new plan to expand access to charter schools, and touching on his pledge to lower taxes and cut federal spending.
The presumptive nominee has taken a warmer tone with Latino voters since the Republican primary ended, launching new Spanish-language advertising and reaching out to Cuban voters in particular. But he’s yet to moderate his hardline position on immigration, a sharp point of contention even within his party, as the latest polls show him trailing with Latinos by the same disastrous margins that brought down John McCain.
Romney’s lack of any reference to immigration on Wednesday was especially glaring given that the Latino Coalition has strongly advocated for comprehensive immigration reforms in recent years. While Romney’s speech was warmly received, several attendees told TPM they hoped he would get his act together now that the general election had begun.
Angela Franco, president of the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a personal supporter of Romney, said she believed he needed to come up with a more productive plan than “self deportation” — and soon.
“You can’t take everyone out of the country because they support a lot of the economy — hospitality, restaurants, everywhere you go there are Hispanic people working,” she told TPM. “It’s something that needs to be addressed. He cant just close his eyes and say, ‘We’ll deal with it later,’ it’s something he needs to take over and have a solution.”
The contrast grew more pronounced later in the day, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), considered high on Romney’s list of potential running mates, addressed the crowd to register his disgust at Congress’s inability to help “young people who find themselves in an undocumented status through no fault of their own.”
Rubio is currently working on legislation that could provide at least legal residency for some college students and military members. Some immigration advocates and Democratic lawmakers are genuinely interested to see what he produces. Rubio also signed on to a bipartisan bill this week to expand legal immigration for highly educated foreign workers.
Outside the event, about a dozen protestors quietly held signs supporting immigration reform. Some of them, like Erika Andiola, 24, were young undocumented immigrants who would potentially be put on a path to citizenship by the DREAM Act.
“If Romney wants to conquer the vote in our community then he has to change his rhetoric,” Andiola said. “Sen. Rubio has shown that he’s changed his mind and now wants to do something for us, he needs to understand that it’s not just about him, it’s about the party.”
If Romney’s standing with Latino voters overall is still toxic, his campaign is hoping that firing up one traditionally Republican subset, Cuban voters, can help offset the damage. In Florida, a must-win state for the GOP nominee that is home to a sizable Cuban American population, a recent Quinnipiac poll shows Romney holding a small lead over Obama.
In recent days, Romney and top Cuban American supporters in Florida have gone after the White House hard for approving a visa for Raul Castro’s daughter to attend a conference in San Francisco. The issue is apparently potent enough to bring some top Florida Democrats into the mix — DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, made a rare break with Obama to condemn the visa. She did note, however, that Republicans stayed silent when similar visas were issued by President Bush.
Romney will need Cuban voters at their most fired up if he wants to win, as a growing and more Democratic-friendly Puerto Rican population in the state has diluted their impact in recent years. Obama won the overall Latino vote in the state 57 percent to 42 percent in 2008, a massive shift after President Bush won the demographic 56 percent to 44 percent just four years earlier. Polls show Rubio would have little effect on Romney’s chances in the state as a potential running mate, but it’s possible his selection would boost turnout.
Republicans in the meantime continue to try to muddy the waters on immigration, saying Obama’s lack of success at overcoming GOP obstruction on reform shows he isn’t any better. Even if thing look lousy now, some strategists are hoping Romney’s non-stop emphasis on jobs will eventually turn things around.
“Under President Obama Hispanics continue to suffer from a disproportionately high unemployment rate of 10.3 percent,” GOP consultant Hessy Fernandez told TPM. “Hispanics understand too well the disastrous effect of Obama and his economy policies: unemployment, foreclosures and poverty rates are higher among Hispanics than the general population.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.