TAMPA, Fla. — From Ted Cruz in Texas to Marco Rubio in Florida, Republicans are touting significant electoral victories by Hispanic candidates as the breakthrough they need to reach out to the booming group of voters.
But the GOP still lags far behind in winning Hispanic votes, thanks in part to its hard-line rhetoric on immigration. Republicans hope to start to reverse the tide at their national convention, with an eye on Florida and Southwest swing states key to Mitt Romney’s hopes of unseating President Barack Obama.
Cruz, the former Texas solicitor general expected to win a Senate seat in November, takes the stage Tuesday night, one of several minority speakers. And Rubio, the Florida senator, has the prominent role of introducing Romney when he speaks Thursday as the nominee. Each day, there are news conferences, forums or parties geared toward Hispanic voter outreach.
And just like the Texas Republican Party at their June convention, national Republicans have included a “guest worker program” for immigrants in their platform, an extraordinary step for a party that has declared staunch opposition to anything that resembles amnesty.
“If you had said that four years ago, you would have been laughed at,” said Dallas Republican Jason Villalba, the GOP nominee for Texas House District 114 in North Dallas.
Still, analysts say, Republicans don’t have enough time before Election Day to completely reverse years of resentment by Hispanic voters created by their rhetoric and policy stances.
In 2004, Bush got over 42 percent of the Hispanic vote, a total better than any Republican president before or since his era.
Bush took a moderate view of immigration, supporting a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, but was unable to get a proposal to overhaul the system through Congress.
Since then, Republicans’ rhetoric has gotten much tougher, and Romney has said illegal immigrants must “self-deport” and seek to return legally. During the GOP primary battle, he blasted Texas Gov. Rick Perry for supporting a state program that allowed illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition.
Romney supporters, particularly during the convention, have tried to soften the candidate’s earlier stand. They stress that he believes in the immigrant spirit of building a business and family in America.
Democrats are confident Obama will get the lion’s share of the Hispanic vote, and not just because of immigration, but also issues such as education and middle-class opportunity.
“Clearly most Hispanics are Democrats and have a very negative view toward the Republican Party,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa.
Hispanic GOP leaders see the party slowly building to where it can attract diverse voters.
Villalba, a former president of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said Hispanic Texans and Texans and view issues like their Lone Star counterparts.
“We, as a party, must make sure we field strong candidates,” Villalba said. “Our issues and biography has to be better than the other guy.”