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Immigration key in Romney drive for Hispanic votes

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mitt Romney addressed the Latino Coalition summit at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington on May 23.

WASHINGTON - Hispanic advisers to Mitt Romney have told him that it is vital that he soften the sharp rhetoric on immigration that he adopted during the Republican primary race and that he work to make inroads with one of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate.

Several advisers said it is evident that Romney is getting the message, and there are plans underway to make a push among Hispanic voters, who currently support President Obama by more than a 2-to-1 margin. The Romney campaign recently hired a full-time Hispanic outreach coordinator and has held several strategy meetings in Boston with Hispanic leaders.

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Spanish-speaking surrogates are being trained, and there are ongoing talks with a major Hispanic advertising firm to work on new television ads that are aimed at Spanish-speakers.

With a bit of irony, the campaign is also reaching out to a group that combines two constituencies that Romney has fared poorly with in the past: Hispanic evangelicals.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said he has been in touch with Romney’s campaign as recently as this week. He thinks the campaign is making significant progress - and has done more outreach than Senator John McCain had at this point four years ago - but still has a way to go.

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“I can’t deny the fact that he’s going to inevitably have to cross the proverbial Jordan of immigration,’’ Rodriguez said. “If he wants to step into the Promised Land, he’s going to have to address immigration reform.’’

Romney is preparing a speech on June 21 before a group of Latino officials in Orlando, an address that some of his Hispanic advisers are pointing to as a potential major turning point. Romney will address that group, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, one day before President Obama does, so it will provide a stark contrast between the two candidates on dealing with the nation’s persistent immigration problems.

It is still unclear how detailed a policy Romney will outline in that address, with one potential variable being a bill that is being drafted by Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and top Hispanic leader. Romney has said only that he is examining Rubio’s plan, which would grant non-immigrant visas to young people here illegally if they go to college or serve in the military.

The plan is a modified version of the so-called DREAM Act, which Democrats have been pushing for several years. That plan would provide a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, something that Rubio’s initial proposal stopped short of.

A reform proposal by Rubio, a potential vice presidential pick, could provide a way for Romney to recast his position on immigration.

Romney has significant ground to make up. During the Republican primary, he was among the most adamant in his party about cracking down on illegal immigration. He said those in the country illegally should go through “self-deportation.’’ He criticized one-time rivals Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for policies that were seen as friendly to Latinos.

Romney said he would veto the DREAM Act, which has given ample ammunition to Democrats to paint him as insensitive to the immigrant community. Romney advisers want him to counter that with some type of plan that would help define Romney more by what he proposes rather than what he opposes.

They don’t envision him backing away from his overarching position - that illegal immigrants should not be given any special pathway to citizenship - but his emphasis and rhetoric will probably shift.

But so far, since the general election campaign began in earnest, Romney has rarely brought up immigration. When he spoke to the Latino Coalition last month, he used the occasion to outline his policies on education.

Romney advisers and supporters don’t think he needs to drastically alter his campaign message - polls, after all, show that the top issue for Hispanics is the economy - but they do acknowledge he needs to discuss immigration in a more prominent way.

“There’s a window of opportunity that Romney has to talk about this issue and define what he would do,’’ said Jennifer Korn, who was the national Hispanic director for President Bush’s 2004 campaign and is now the executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network. “Hispanics are still shopping, they’re open to hearing what Romney has to say.’’

Romney’s efforts to reach out to Hispanic evangelicals also appears to be an attempt to find common ground with a group that largely shares his views on social issues, even if they may not agree on some of his immigration policies.

“Governor Romney needs to attract Latinos by addressing the following issues: faith, family, entrepreneurship,’’ Rodriguez said. “If he can focus on these three areas, this is the ethos of the Hispanic community.’’

Overall, polls show that Hispanics are more socially conservative than other voters on some issues, such as abortion, but are more liberal on others, such as homosexuality. Hispanics are also more likely than the general public to describe their views as liberal, according to a Pew Research poll conducted in April.

Romney has rarely had to reach out to Spanish-speaking voters during his political career. Hispanics are a small percentage of the Massachusetts population, and during Romney’s 2008 race, he didn’t get far enough into the campaign to make Hispanic outreach a major push. That makes his challenges more acute than they were for previous Republicans - including George W. Bush, from Texas, and John McCain, from Arizona - who had to build coalitions for statewide elections that included Hispanics.

Romney advisers think it is important that he does better than the 32 percent of the Hispanic vote that McCain won in 2008, particularly given the growing Hispanic population in key states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. Their current goal is about 40 percent of the vote, which means there is a lot of work left to be done.

A poll released last week showed Obama with 61 percent among Latinos, compared with 27 percent for Romney. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll also showed that Obama had a 61 percent approval rating among Latinos, compared with 48 percent among all Americans.

Romney only recently started running Spanish-language ads, and so far they are the same ads that are running in English, only translated. But Romney’s campaign has also been in talks with San Antonio-based MAS Consulting Group, which specializes in Spanish advertising and consulting.

“We’ve been talking with them but nothing firm yet,’’ the president, Cesar Martinez, said in a brief interview. “We’re ready to help anybody.’’

Romney’s campaign released a Spanish-language ad called “Dismal’’ this week, and he traveled to Hispanic-owned businesses in Texas and Missouri, talking about how the economy has affected them more broadly than average Americans.

“Did you know that the rate of unemployment among Hispanic Americans rose last month to 11 percent?’’ Romney said in Fort Worth. “And that the people in this country that are poor, living in poverty, one out of three are Hispanic American?’’

Romney also unveiled a Hispanic Steering Committee called “Junto con Romney,’’ or “Together with Romney.’’ But the committee includes a cosponsor and at least five other supporters of the DREAM Act that Romney opposes.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.
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