Just beneath the surface of President Obama's strong approval ratings, Republicans see signs of a chance to woo Hispanic voters and turn this influential bloc of voters to their side.
A new poll from a new Republican-leaning group called the Libre Initiative finds that Hispanic voters are unhappy with the country's direction, pessimistic about their kids' futures and suspicious about what government can do to foster the American dream.
"We're getting in front of Hispanics with a different message than you've been hearing," said Jose Mallea, Libre Initiative's national coordinator.
"The Democrats want to talk about immigration, and the Dream Act," Mallea said. "This is an effort to talk about economic freedom, opportunity, the American dream, and government over-reach."
Mallea acknowledged that the nationwide poll for the group -- which oversampled Hispanic voters in states like Florida and California -- showed that Republicans have catching up to do when it comes to Hispanics.
A big reason for the Hispanic gap in Obama's favor: The so-called DREAM Act, which seeks to give the best and brightest children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship for enrolling in college or the military.
Though President Obama failed to get the act passed when Democrats controlled Congress, many Republicans have opposed it outright, saying it allows for too much "amnesty" that encourages more illegal immigration.
Now, Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio has offered a scaled-back version that would give legal residency status -- but not citizenship -- to some college- and military-bound residents who aren't legal citizens.
The Libre Initiative didn't poll the DREAM Act or Rubio's proposal. The former is wildly popular among Hispanic voters, and one recent poll by the group Latino Decisions showed that Hispanics are less likely to vote for a candidate who opposes the act.
Nationwide, Obama pulls in 61 percent of the Latino vote against a generic Republican who would get just 31 percent, according to the Libre Initiative poll of 500 likely Hispanic voters conducted by the Tarrance Group, a firm that typically surveys for Republicans. The pollster oversampled 700 Hispanic voters in seven states.
Likely Hispanic voters in Florida were the least-enthusiastic when it came to support for Obama, with 48 percent saying they'd vote for the president and 45 percent planning to vote against him. That lead is well inside the poll's error margin of plus or minus 4.5 percent.Florida, however, is an anomaly when it comes to the Hispanic vote due to the heavy concentration of Cuban American voters, who tend to be more conservative than, say, Mexican or Puerto Rican voters.
A principal with Latino Decisions, Gary Segura, said the immigration debate will probably play more in Obama's favor this summer when the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the constitutionality of Arizona's immigration crackdown, reviled by many Hispanics.
"That's a huge ticking time bomb," Segura said. "Even though the president, in my opinion, has been lousy on the issue, he'll come out looking good."
The Libre Initiative wants to stop that, and Mallea points out that the economy is no advantage for Obama.
A majority of Hispanics -- 51 percent in the nation, 54 percent in Florida -- say it's harder to open businesses now than it was four years ago. More than half say the country is on the wrong track. More than eight in 10 Hispanics are concerned with the federal government's debt, and 54 percent nationally -- 57 percent in Florida -- want to see less government spending.
The poll, however, didn't ask respondents if they thought the rich should pay higher taxes -- a common and popular Democratic talking point.
More than half of Hispanics in the nation and Florida believe they've achieved the American dream, but more than half believe the next generation won't be as well off.
Also, when asked about the role of government in achieving the American dream, 56 percent nationwide and 61 percent in Florida say less government would be better.
The questions are phrased in such a way that they could produce more conservative-leaning responses. And that's the point. The group wants its chance to peel off persuadable Hispanic voters, Mallea said.
Republicans don't expect to win the Hispanic vote nationwide. But if they can peel off a portion of the vote, it could cost Obama big -- especially in Florida, said Mallea, a former Florida manager for Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign and Rubio's successful Senate bid in 2010. The nonprofit group's executive director, Dan Garza, is a former outreach director for President George W. Bush's White House.
The group intends to raise and spend millions of dollars for commercials, flyers and outreach to help reach Hispanics, many of whom have been turned off by the GOP debate over immigration. Republican luminaries like Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush have cautioned Republicans over their tone in the immigration debate.
Mallea said Obama's numbers with Hispanic voters remind him of the support for another one of Florida's former governors, who was chased out of the Republican Party and then beaten in the general election last year by Rubio.
"What you could see with Obama is what you saw with Charlie Crist: Support a mile wide but an inch thick," Mallea said. "If you can crack that inch, you can move people."
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