Has the GOP Lost Latino Voters?

CNN, February 19, 2008

There’s a dilemma brewing among Latino voters: If they support Sen. John McCain, long seen as a moderate Republican on immigration reform, they also must deal with his party’s tough approach toward the hot button issue.

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Unlike his original immigration proposal, which included a path to citizenship, McCain said as president, he would secure the borders first before offering other ways to deal with illegal immigration.

In a border state like Texas, which holds its Republican primary March 4, the large Latino population could help McCain reach the magic number of 1,091 delegates to win the Republican nomination.

But the influential conservative base of the party has taken a hard-line approach toward immigration—and that is not sitting well with Latinos.

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Rodriguez (the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez), a conservative, is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

As president, Rodriguez, of Puerto Rican descent, has ties to 18,000 Latino Evangelical Churches. He is young and powerful. And he is not happy. He calls immigration reform a debacle.

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Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican Cuban-American from Miami, admits the GOP has turned off many Latino voters.

But Ros-Lehtinen has faith in McCain, and believes he can bring them back.

“In John McCain we have someone who can expand our base. President Bush the father, President Bush the son, did it,” she said. “They got a good chunk. President Reagan did as well, a good chunk of the Hispanic vote. But we’ve lost that now because of that nasty rhetoric.”

But Latinos need persuading on a whole range of issues—and immigration is not always No. 1.

Puerto Rican-born Marytza Sanz, a Democrat, is the founder of Latino Leadership in Orlando, Florida, which registers Latinos to vote.

“I think that it’s more than the immigration situation. Right now our community is desperate with the economy,” she said.

That may not help McCain, who has been criticized by former GOP presidential rivals for not having enough economic credentials to turn around the nation’s sagging economy.

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