Friday, Feb. 3, 2012 | 10:02 a.m.
As the race for the Republican presidential nomination has moved west to Nevada, the distinctions between the four candidates’ approaches to courting Hispanic voters have become more clear.
While both Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich staged specific events geared toward the Hispanic community this week and tailored speeches at those events to address issues such as immigration, neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum dedicated any Nevada campaign stops to addressing Hispanics.
In Nevada, 224,000 — 14 percent — of all eligible voters are Hispanic. The Republican National Committee stepped up its efforts to reach Hispanic voters this election season with dedicated websites and Twitter feeds, and it has been joined by some of the presidential candidates. Hispanic voters in Nevada have overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates in recent contests, including choosing Rory Reid over Gov. Brian Sandoval by a 2-to-1 margin in 2010.
“Ask Sharron Angle how important the Hispanic vote is,” said Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, referring to Angle’s failed 2010 U.S. Senate bid in which she lost to Democratic incumbent Harry Reid by less than 6 percentage points. “Harry Reid took the majority of the Hispanic vote by far, and he later thanked Hispanic voters for his election.”
The nonpartisan Hispanics in Politics offered to organize community forums for all four Republican candidates, but Paul’s campaign was the only one to accept the invitation. Santorum’s campaign never responded.
“I was very disappointed in the candidates’ response,” Romero said. “Here we’ve been talking about the importance of the Latino vote, and we give them a venue offered through our 32-year-old organization that has a following, and they didn’t take advantage of it. Ron Paul took advantage of it, but it’s somewhat disheartening how the others responded.”
Paul spoke Wednesday morning at the East Las Vegas Community Center and took questions from the predominantly Hispanic crowd. During his speech he told the audience he felt Hispanics and immigrants have been used as “scapegoats” during the recession, and that while he does not support the Dream Act, he does not believe the United States should deport people who came here at an early age and grew up in this country.
Thursday morning was Gingrich’s turn to meet with Hispanic voters. The former speaker of the House had a smaller event at Mundo restaurant in World Market Center in which his campaign invited Hispanic community and business leaders.
Gingrich reiterated his proposals for a guest-worker program, a military-only version of the Dream Act and special provisions that would allow those who can prove they have strong ties to the community and have been in the country for a long period of time to stay legally.
Realtors Jose and Roberta Hernandez attended the Gingrich event and said they were planning to participate in the caucuses Saturday.
“The more I listen to Newt, the more I support him,” Jose Hernandez, 53, said. “He has good, solid ideas to help the economy. I think he is on the right track with the immigration issue, and he will help bring the country together.”
The couple agreed Romney was not as connected to Hispanic issues as Gingrich, and they were opposed to negative advertising that proliferated in the Florida primary.
Both Gingrich and Paul have national and local Hispanic outreach coordinators. Gingrich has a Spanish-language website, newtpresidente.com.
Romney’s campaign stands somewhere in the middle in terms of Hispanic voter outreach. He has not been as active in setting up forums with Hispanic voters during campaign stops, but there are Romney advertisements and campaign literature in Spanish.
Santorum is not conducting outreach, nor is his campaign producing materials or advertisements in Spanish.
For some, Santorum’s steadfast refusal to campaign in any language other than English is a plus.
“In reality, (the Hispanic vote) does not exist,” Rita Bonilla said Tuesday evening at a Santorum event in Las Vegas. “Hispanics that are trying to be influential in political races, they want to make those people think they carry a lot of weight. When they talk about reaching the Hispanic community, it’s reaching the illegal alien community. To reach me, an American Hispanic, you don’t need to do anything special. ... I don’t want (campaign materials) in Spanish.”
Somos Republicans, an Arizona-based Latino GOP group, has endorsed Gingrich. Las Vegas resident and Somos Republicans member Jim Gonzalez said he is a registered Republican, believes in the party and loves Ronald Reagan. For the Puerto Rican, what sets the candidates apart is their immigration policies.
“I want it to be approached in a humane way,” Gonzalez said. “There are kids who were born here, who grew up here, and they only know this system and this country. They are Americans; they pledge an allegiance to this country as kids. ... Gingrich wants to open a pathway for those people to become citizens.”
Romney caught the attention of the Hispanic community when he was endorsed by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who helped author laws in Arizona and Alabama designed to crack down on illegal immigration.
Even though Romney chose not to come to the Hispanics, they have come to him. On Thursday, a group of Dream Act advocates picketed in front of Romney’s Las Vegas headquarters. The group has followed Romney to every state he has campaigned in, focusing on his vow to veto the Dream Act.
“We are not asking for much,” said Cesar Vargas, who protested. “It is not a handout; we just want the opportunity to go to college and work for the nation that we grew up in. The Republicans are pandering to the anti-immigrant sentiment.”
Ryan Erwin, a Republican political consultant and Romney’s senior campaign adviser in Nevada, said the campaign’s focus is on the economy, an issue that affects everyone.
“Our focus is on jobs and the economy, and that’s the focus of every single Hispanic business owner that I’ve spoken with,” Erwin said. “The best thing that Gov. Romney or any candidate can do is get the economy back on track. It’s not a Hispanic issue, African-American issue or Asian issue. It’s an American issue, and it’s a Nevada issue.”
While immigration is important among Hispanic voters, polls show it is not their most pressing issue.
A Pew Research Center survey found, among Hispanic voters, that jobs and education were the top two issues. Those two were closely followed by health care and then taxes, the federal budget deficit and immigration.
The median net worth of Hispanic households dropped 66 percent from 2005 to 2009, according to Pew. Median net worth fell 16 percent for white households and 53 percent for black households during that time period.
A report released in January from Pew found that 54 percent of Hispanics said the economy had harmed Latinos worse than any other group.
While it may appear as though Romney has not endeared himself to many Hispanics, he did take 53 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida’s primary. Some pundits have said that will be difficult to duplicate in other states, where the Hispanic demographics are different. In Florida, about 9 percent of Hispanic voters are of Mexican descent and 32 percent are of Cuban origin. Nationwide, those figures are 59 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
Still, for Hispanic Republicans, even those who oppose many of Romney’s views, the former Massachusetts governor would be better than President Barack Obama.
“All four are way better than what we have now,” Hernandez said. “Electing Obama was like hiring a CEO with no experience to run your business. If Romney wins, we will vote for him. The last four years with Obama have been devastating.”
Sun Staff Reporter Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.