News Column

Romney, Obama Run Aggressive Spanish-language Campaigns

October 15, 2012

Scott Powers

Obama - Romney

It could have been a scene in San Juan.

Two former Puerto Rico governors, along with other Spanish-speaking politicians, took turns here recently offering one-on-one interviews to a phalanx of Spanish-language reporters, urging Hispanics to vote to re-elect President Barack Obama.

Every few minutes, former Govs. Rafael Hernandez-Colon and Carlos Romero-Barcelo; Puerto Rico Sen. Juan Euginio Hernandez-Mayoral; and U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., would switch interviewers in a prep room inside Osceola Heritage Park's Exhibition Building. Afterward, they addressed a crowd of supporters in an exhibit hall, mostly en espanol.

The vast majority of Central Floridians who speak only English probably knew nothing of this. But area residents who watch, listen to and read Spanish media saw it all over the news last weekend.

The campaigns for both Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are running aggressive, largely independent Spanish-language campaigns in Central Florida, South Florida and Tampa. Romney calls his Juntos con Romney [Together with Romney]. Obama calls his Latinos por Obama [Latinos for Obama].

"The difference is the way the message is delivered. It is delivered in the Latin flavor," said Obama For America national co-chair Lynnette Acosta.

Kissimmee is ground zero for both campaigns.

Spanish-speaking politicians are dispatched to the Osceola County city to talk to voters and give interviews to Spanish-language media. Both campaigns air Spanish radio and TV commercials featuring Hispanic celebrities and politicians. They have Spanish-language websites, staffers, phone banks and door-to-door efforts.

Juntos has brought in former Gov. Jeb Bush; Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno; his wife, Luce Vela; former Florida U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez; former Puerto Rico Attorney General Jose Fuentes; and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.

Besides the recent lineup, the Obama campaign has brought in U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco "Frank" Sanchez; Puerto Rico's U.S. Delegate Pedro Pierluisi; Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock; and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

The Latin flavor they offer is family-oriented and personal, both campaigns said.

"Things like family values, the emotional aspect of family togetherness, are really important," Acosta said. "So when we talk about issues like jobs and health care, we talk about what are the president's values, and how those relate to Latino values."

Family values and jobs are issues that Juntos sees as Romney's strengths. And they see Kissimmee, though largely Democratic, to be up for grabs because the Puerto Rican-dominated population is "a floating vote," said Fuentes, national co-chairman of Juntos.

"They tend to vote their values and their pocketbooks," Fuentes said.

One recent Obama ad, for instance, featured Hispanic TV talk-show host Cristina Saralegui talking about health care for Florida's Hispanic families. Romney's Spanish-language ads have focused more on the economy, but one released last month featured Hispanics making complaints about Obama such as, "He tells us a lot of nice things, then forgets about us."

However, for many Hispanics, immigration reform is a wedge issue between the parties. Even though Florida's Puerto Ricans and most Cuban-Americans are U.S. citizens, polls show Florida Hispanics strongly side with Democrats' views on the proposed DREAM Act, Arizona-style state immigration laws and public assistance for immigrants.

"The majority of Latinos in Florida are Cuban or Puerto Rican, but the communities we grow up in are very mixed," Acosta said. "And we still identify ourselves with the greater Latino community. There is a definite sentiment of solidarity."

Democrats attack in Spanish with their immigration stances, while Republicans play defense, in a message battle rarely heard in English-language ads and speeches.

Fuentes said that Hispanics' immigration-reform angst eases once Juntos details Romney's positions. Romney has vowed not to deport law-abiding residents. And as president, Romney said recently, he would retain Obama's executive order, signed in June, to offer permanent residency for certain young illegal immigrants until a full immigration-reform act could be enacted.

"The angst has really died down now that people understand," Fuentes said.

Still, Hispanic voter registration -- now 1.6 million -- is turning Democratic in Florida and is rising fast. Since 2008, the number of Hispanics registered as Democrats has increased by 79,000, compared with just 18,000 more Republicans. Another 99,000 have signed up as independents or other parties.

Overall, Hispanics make up 14.4 percent of the electorate, up from 12 percent in 2008 and split 38 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican and 32 percent independent or other parties. As recently as 2006, they split 37-33 Republican.

In 2008, Obama won 67 percent of the nationwide Hispanic vote and a slight majority in Florida. This year, polls have varied. A Marist Poll released last week gave Obama a 47-45 advantage among Florida Hispanics. Two weeks ago, Latino Decisions for America's Voice released a poll that gave Obama a 61-31 lead.

After appearing for Juntos in Kissimmee last week, Jeb Bush, who is married to a Mexican-American and is fluent in Spanish, acknowledged that some Republicans' tough talk about illegal immigration has hurt. But Bush insisted Romney has not added to that problem, though Democrats attack Romney for his statement last year that illegal immigrants should "self-deport."

"Over the last two or three election cycles, [there has been] a tone, particularly in primaries, that sends a signal that people who embrace our philosophy may not be wanted, which is ridiculous. But tone is tone," Bush said. "If you say something in a way that is not respectful -- and again, Mitt Romney is not the guy that does this -- the impact plays out increasingly in elections around the country."

Source: (c) 2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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