Unwilling to promise the kind of immigration overhaul many Hispanics want, Mitt Romney urged an unenthusiastic crowd of Latino elected officials Thursday to look closely at his plans to boost job creation in their embattled communities.
Romney often made his pitch in broad brushstrokes – lower taxes, less regulation, cuts in government spending – that could be aimed at any audience.
“We know our businesses can’t succeed, grow and hire more workers without a more competitive tax code,” he told the gathering.
“That’s why I will lower our corporate tax rate, and reduce individual marginal rates by 20 percent, across the board,” he said. “We also know that our businesses and families need affordable and reliable energy. Producing more of our energy resources will create jobs in America and generate greater revenues for America. It will also help bring manufacturing back to our shores.”
Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, faced a tough crowd at the annual convention of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. About one-sixth of the seats were empty when he spoke, and he received light applause. President Barack Obama, who got more than two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008 and remains overwhelmingly popular among Hispanics, is to appear Friday.
Romney tried hard to draw a sharp contrast.
“Tomorrow, President Obama will speak here, for the first time since his last campaign. He may admit that he hasn’t kept every promise,” the Republican said. “And he’ll probably say that, even though you aren’t better off today than you were four years ago, things could be worse.
“He’ll imply that you really don’t have an alternative. He’s taking your vote for granted,” Romney insisted. “You do have an alternative. Your vote should be respected.”
Romney, who some in the Latino community have criticized for his tough stand on illegal immigration, badly needs to chip away at Obama’s lead among Hispanics. Their votes are a growing share in presidential elections. Nationally, Hispanics in 2012 are expected to account for 8.7 percent of the vote, up from 7.4 percent in 2008, 6 percent in 2004 and 5.3 percent in 2000. And their growing voice could prove decisive in the swing states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.
Obama faces his own political challenge among Hispanics. Polls had shown diminished Latino voter enthusiasm for him, though surveys found he injected fresh energy into the community June 15 when he announced his administration would not deport thousands of younger undocumented workers.
Obama’s directive further complicated Romney’s strategy. The former Massachusetts governor is hoping to woo Hispanic voters with his message of economic change. The Hispanic unemployment rate of 11 percent last month was nearly 3 percentage points above the national average.
Some thought the Romney message would resonate. “To say Hispanics only care about one issue, immigration, is insulting,” said Nelson Diaz, a Miami attorney and Romney backer.
Obed Escontrias, an alderman from Presidio, Texas, said that while he has an open mind, “we forget who got us into this economic mess,” notably the Republican George W. Bush administration.
Democrats saw little hope from Romney. “It’s a good thing we’re in Disney World, the land of fantasy,” said Trey Martinez Fischer, a Texas state representative from San Antonio. “We have a lot of fantasy here today.”
But to Romney backer Julius Menendez, vice chairman of the school board in Osceola County, Fla., the immigration debate is not properly focused. “Republicans overemphasize the illegal component. It makes the party look anti-Hispanic. We should talk about what’s broken in the legal immigration system,” he said.
Romney did just that Thursday and invoked the memory of his late father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, whose family came to this country from Mexico. “When he was 5, they left everything behind, and started over in the United States,” his son recalled.
“As president, I will stand for a path to legal status for anyone who is willing to stand up and defend this great nation through military service,” Romney promised. “Those who have risked their lives in defense of America have earned the right to make their life in America.”
He also pledged to make “legal immigration more attractive than illegal immigration, so that people are rewarded for waiting patiently in line. That’s why my administration will establish a strong employment verification system, so that every business can know with confidence that the people it hires are legally eligible for employment.”
Some of the lack of enthusiasm for Obama is his unwillingness to fight hard for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“For two years, this president had huge majorities in the House and Senate – he was free to pursue any policy he pleased,” Romney said. “But he did nothing to advance a permanent fix for our broken immigration system. Instead, he failed to act until facing a tough re-election and trying to secure your vote.”
Martinez thought such criticism was misplaced. Noting Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives since January 2011, he said, “Romney’s Congress has done nothing.”