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Oppenheimer: How Mitt Romney can reach Hispanic voters

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduces Mitt Romney, back

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduces Mitt Romney, back right, during a campaign stop in Miami. (Aug. 13, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

One of the key things to watch in this week's Republican national convention in Tampa is whether the Romney-Ryan ticket will be able to connect with Hispanics and improve its dismal approval ratings among Latino voters. There are some things they could do - but I doubt they will.

According to a poll of Hispanic voters by NBC News, The Wall Street Journal and Telemundo, the first that was conducted after presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney picked Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate, President Barack Obama leads Romney by a whopping 63 percent to 28 percent among Latino voters.

To make things worse for Romney, the Republican platform scheduled to be approved at the convention has adopted a hard line on immigration, calling among other things for a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, ending in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and prohibiting so-called sanctuary-cities that accept people without immigration papers.

While the platform will include language supporting a guest-worker program, anti-immigration extremists persuaded the platform committee to use the term "illegal alien" instead of "illegal immigrant" throughout the document, according to an Oct. 22 Tampa Bay Times article. "Illegal alien" is a term that many see as dehumanizing undocumented immigrants.

In an effort to win over more Hispanics -- and get closer to the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote that Republican incumbent George W. Bush got in 2004, or the 31 percent that Republican candidate Sen. John McCain got in 2008 -- the Republican campaign is scheduled to feature an impressive lineup of Latino politicians at the convention. (There will be not one single Latino performer, though, according to the convention's entertainment lineup announced Friday.)

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is scheduled to introduce Romney on Thursday night, while Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, and Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno and his wife, Luisa, are scheduled to speak Monday night, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is to speak Tuesday night.

The Latino speakers will try to project the image of the GOP as a party of diversity and economic opportunity, and they will seek to paint a picture of Romney as a friend of Hispanics, Republican officials say.

Their main goal will be to counteract Romney's image among many Hispanics as a multimillionaire who is a candidate of the rich, and whose anti-immigration rhetoric often comes across as hostile to all Latinos.

Among the things that Romney could do:

-- He could make headlines, and show some spine, by chastising anti-immigration extremists within his party who keep perpetuating the myth that we can deport up to 12 million undocumented residents, and by taking distance from his fellow Republicans who claim, among other things, that undocumented immigrants bring dangerous diseases to this country.

-- He should acknowledge that many "illegal" immigrants enter this country illegally because, under the outdated current immigration rules, they can't obtain a legal entry visa to work in jobs that Americans won't take.

-- He could state that, if elected, he would not rescind Obama's recent executive action to grant a two-year temporary residency to up to 1.7 million undocumented Dream Act-eligible students who were brought to the country by their parents as infants.

-- He could shift away from his previous calls for "self-deportation" of all undocumented immigrants -- a plan that Latino leaders say would amount to making life impossible for undocumented residents until they leave the country voluntarily, and that would in effect hurt all Hispanics regardless of their legal status.

My opinion: The fact that Romney picked Ryan over several Spanish speakers -- including Rubio and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman -- as his running mate, that he made his pre-convention foreign policy tour to Europe and Israel without even stopping in Mexico, that he didn't even mention Hispanic or Latin American-related issues during a recent stop in Miami, make me think that his campaign has given up on the Hispanic vote.

Most likely, the Romney team believes the nationwide Hispanic vote is irrelevant, since most Latinos live in states such as New York and California that will vote for Democrats anyway. Romney will thus mostly target Hispanics in a handful of swing states, such as Florida, and launch a negative campaign blaming Obama for worsening unemployment among Hispanics in hopes that many Latinos will remain home on Election Day.

Barring more economic bad news, I doubt this will work. Romney's decision to bank his political future on his party's anti-immigration right wing makes him come across as no friend of Latinos. It will cost him to lose the Hispanic vote -- and perhaps the election, too.

Writer Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Email him at