Illinois Republican Party co-chair Gabriela Wyatt knows the importance of attracting Latino voters in November. She also knows it's an uphill climb for the GOP to make inroads with the nation's fastest-growing demographic.
Some polls show Latino voters favoring President Obama 2-1 over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Wyatt, a Mexican-born resident of Aurora, said Romney is saddled with years of Hispanic perceptions of Republicans.
"I think the problems are bigger than just Mitt Romney. In general, it is the Republican Party," said Wyatt, who has been vice president of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Illinois. "For years, Hispanics have been supporting Democrats at all levels. And Democrats have been reaching out more to Hispanics than Republicans. That's one of the facts."
To counter that, the GOP is using its big stage this week to push back against the perception that Hispanics are at odds with the party's platform. Prime-time presenters at the convention have worked Spanish phrases into their speeches. The governor of Puerto Rico popped into the Illinois delegation's morning meeting. And Republican Latino politicians have addressed convention delegates.
On Tuesday night at the made-for-TV event at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas told hundreds of delegates from around the country about his father, who emigrated from Cuba. Speaking in Spanish, Cruz said his dad came to the U.S. with nothing except heart.
Later, Luce Vela, the first lady of Puerto Rico, introduced herself to the crowd as "a very proud Latina and a die-hard Republican" while setting the stage for the speech by Ann Romney, Mitt Romney's wife. The next morning, Vela's husband, Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, drew applause from Illinois Republicans at their daily breakfast when he described his efforts to balance the commonwealth's budget.
Nationwide delegates also heard testimony Tuesday night by a Hispanic business owner who decried Obama's fiscal policies. And Cher Valenzuela, a candidate for Delaware lieutenant governor, talked to the crowd about her husband, Eli, a second-generation Mexican-American.
On Wednesday, delegates heard from New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Angel Garcia, president of the Chicago Young Republicans, said the party has to highlight to voters that it includes among its ranks elected Latino officials at all levels of government.
"I think that for the last 12 years we've seen the Republican Party not market itself well to Latinos," Garcia said. "But when you look at people like (Florida U.S. Sen.) Marco Rubio, you see that the party has people who can be extremely appealing to Latinos."
Obama is widely thought to have consolidated the Latino vote with his recent order to give young undocumented immigrants two years of protected status in the U.S., a move that drew a crowd estimated at 13,000 this month to fill out applications at Navy Pier.
While taking anything but a hard line on undocumented immigration leaves Republican candidates vulnerable to attacks from the right in their party, Garcia said he thinks Romney will find a way to do it.
"Obama made all these promises, he has had a whole term and he didn't do anything until the very end," Garcia said.
Wyatt, meanwhile, said Republican success locally with Latinos lies in the hard work of making the case to voters, one family at a time. Hispanic voters in Aurora respond to the GOP plan for growing the economy and strengthening schools, she said.
"When I go door to door and people hear that I'm there for a Republican candidate, it's hard," she said. "They are very skeptical. But they will listen. Sometimes it takes a half-hour just for one Latino family, but they will let you make the case."
Amid the talk of wooing Latinos, however, there's the GOP platform. It advocates making English the official language of the U.S. -- a position many Latinos say is impractical for newly arrived immigrants.
"To that end, while we encourage the retention and transmission of heritage tongues, we support English as the nation's official language, a unifying force essential for the educational and economic advancement of -- not only immigrant communities -- but also our nation as a whole," the platform reads.
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