Obama, Romney Both Winners at Latino Conference

Republicans say Romney reintroduced himself to a crucial group of voters who overwhelmingly favor Obama.

June 22, 2012, 11:35 p.m.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — A high-pro­file gath­er­ing of Latino pub­lic of­fi­cials turned out to be a win-win for Pres­id­ent Obama and Re­pub­lic­an Mitt Rom­ney, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with those who at­ten­ded. Demo­crats did not take Obama to task for wait­ing so long to stop de­port­a­tions of young il­leg­al im­mig­rants, and Re­pub­lic­ans ex­pressed re­lief at Rom­ney’s pres­ence and softer tone.

“I think people are ready to give both of them, really both of them some pass,” said Ron Gar­cia, a Re­pub­lic­an from South­ern Cali­for­nia and a mem­ber of the board of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Latino Elec­ted and Ap­poin­ted Of­fi­cials. “There’s some time now to di­gest what the two can­did­ates have to of­fer.”

The fast-grow­ing Latino com­munity is a pivotal vot­ing bloc in sev­er­al battle­ground states, in­clud­ing Flor­ida, Col­or­ado, Nevada, Vir­gin­ia, North Car­o­lina and Ari­zona. Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008 and is do­ing even bet­ter than that in some polls this year. Ana­lysts es­tim­ate that Rom­ney needs to win as much as 40 per­cent of the Latino vote to win the White House, a goal he is not reach­ing in sev­er­al states and one made harder by the tough im­mig­ra­tion rhet­or­ic he and oth­er Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates em­ployed dur­ing the primar­ies.

Obama’s stand­ing with Lati­nos was re­flec­ted in the en­thu­si­ast­ic cheers and mul­tiple stand­ing ova­tions he re­ceived at NA­LEO. Bet­ter yet for him: the only sub­ject that came close to gen­er­at­ing as much fer­vor as his new policy on un­doc­u­mented youth was his men­tion of the Af­ford­able Care Act, a tox­ic sub­ject in much of the coun­try.

“I was very moved by it,” said Mary Rose Wil­cox, a Mari­copa County su­per­visor from Phoenix, Ar­iz. “I saw a tough­ness that I had not seen the last time he came to NA­LEO and I like that a lot, be­cause he has done so much — in terms of not only what he did with the ex­ec­ut­ive de­cision (on young im­mig­rants) but also with the eco­nomy.”

Her chief of staff, Terri Leija, said Obama’s speech mo­tiv­ated her to get out the vote.

While Obama had a nat­ur­al ad­vant­age at the con­fer­ence, Rom­ney be­ne­fit­ted from of­fer­ing his own ideas for im­mig­ra­tion re­form in front of a po­lite, if un­enthu­si­ast­ic audi­ence. His pro­pos­als, aimed in part at keep­ing fam­il­ies to­geth­er and highly edu­cated for­eign stu­dents in the United States, al­lowed him to move away from his much-scorned “self-de­port­a­tion” lan­guage and re­in­tro­duce him­self as a gen­er­al-elec­tion nom­in­ee sym­path­et­ic to the con­cerns of Latino voters.

“I was a little up­set with him over some of the harsh­ness with re­spect to im­mig­ra­tion in the past,  but what he said today was something I find ap­peal­ing,” said Juan Za­pata, a self-de­scribed mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an who chairs the NA­LEO Edu­ca­tion fund. “Soften­ing that rhet­or­ic with re­gards to im­mig­ra­tion will def­in­itely go a long way to­wards help­ing Re­pub­lic­ans.”

If Rom­ney’s speech was part of the learn­ing pro­cess of how to speak to His­pan­ic voters, “he’s on the right track,” said Long­wood, Fla., city coun­cil­man Bob Cor­tes, a Re­pub­lic­an.

Key to the sat­is­fac­tion of sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans at the con­fer­ence was a sense that Rom­ney did not out­right re­ject the ideas be­hind the DREAM Act, le­gis­la­tion that would cre­ate a path to cit­izen­ship to people brought to the United States il­leg­ally as chil­dren, if they pur­sue a col­lege edu­ca­tion or mil­it­ary ser­vice.

However, sev­er­al Demo­crats — in­clud­ing Obama — poin­ted to Rom­ney’s em­phat­ic op­pos­i­tion to the DREAM Act dur­ing the primary cam­paign. Many called Rom­ney’s ideas vague and ac­cused him of de­lib­er­ately avoid­ing say­ing wheth­er he would over­turn Obama’s new policy of let­ting young un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants ap­ply for tem­por­ary de­port­a­tion re­prieves and work per­mits (Rom­ney said in his speech he would pro­pose com­pre­hens­ive re­form that would “su­per­sede” Obama’s or­der).

“This is clearly a con­trast between ac­tion and words,” said Texas State Rep. Trey Mar­tinez Fisc­her, a Demo­crat. “We heard a bunch of great ideas about im­mig­ra­tion policies, but we know that when Gov. Rom­ney is fun­drais­ing in oth­er parts of the coun­try, he talks about veto­ing the DREAM Act, build­ing walls, do­ing things that take Lati­nos back for gen­er­a­tions.”

Many gave Rom­ney cred­it for ap­pear­ing at the con­fer­ence even with the know­ledge that the crowd would be largely com­prised of Demo­crats sup­port­ive of Obama. “I think he ba­sic­ally showed them that he did care one way or an­oth­er, he did be­lieve in the Latino vote and that he did be­lieve that im­mig­ra­tion is an is­sue,” said Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al con­sult­ant Esteban Fer­reiro. “I think he did what he needed to do with­in his be­liefs.”

Even Demo­crats like Utah State Sen­ate minor­ity lead­er Ross Romero said Rom­ney’s in­ten­tions seemed sin­cere, even if his policy pro­pos­als were too gen­er­al. “The fact that he spent 20 minutes, 30 minutes walk­ing the rope line after his speech said to me that he knew he had work to do, he knew that he needed to make those one-on-one con­nec­tions, and the fact that we were re­spect­ful when he was speak­ing lent for that op­por­tun­ity,” Romero said.

Rom­ney is un­likely to make much head­way with his at­tempts to con­vince the His­pan­ic com­munity that the pres­id­ent is tak­ing their votes for gran­ted. Most Obama sup­port­ers, like Leija, blame Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress for block­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­form. And as for the charge that Obama broke a prom­ise by not ap­pear­ing at NA­LEO in every year of his pres­id­ency?

“I’ve been a mem­ber of NA­LEO for 12 years and I’ve nev­er seen Gov. Rom­ney here,” Mar­tinez Fisc­her said. “The fact of the mat­ter is, [Obama is] the pres­id­ent of the United States and he’s the lead­er of the world and we don’t ex­pect him to be at every place every time we have a con­ven­ing. But we know where we stand with­in his policies.”

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