TAMPA, Fla. — The tableau was one that any political group making an appeal to Latino voters would want — two Latino governors onstage speaking to activists in town for the party convention, flanking a former governor who speaks fluent Spanish, all discussing their party's appeal.
The fact that it took place here, at the Republican convention, and that Democrats lack the Latino officeholders to put on any similar display, underscores a political paradox: Democrats hold the loyalty of the vast majority of Latino voters, but they lag well behind the GOP in electing nationally recognized Latino political figures.
Polls show President Obama taking the votes of more than two-thirds of Latinos, matching or exceeding the 67% that he won in 2008. Republicans hope they can win the election this year despite that deficit. But as the population of Latino voters continues to grow, many GOP strategists worry that continuing to win will become almost impossible without improving the party's standing with Latinos.
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Republican officials hope the party's growing number of prominent Latino elected officials will help them escape that demographic trap. At the convention, they plan to prominently feature Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who is almost certain to win election to the Senate this fall.
On the other side, by contrast, Democrats plan to showcase two mayors, Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and Julian Castro of San Antonio, respectively the convention chairman and keynote speaker. While mayors often cast large shadows in their home cities, they seldom match the level of national attention commanded by a senator or governor.
Latino Republicans have risen faster than their Democratic counterparts in part because of the ferment of the tea party movement, which allowed younger, relatively untested political figures, including Rubio and Cruz, to defeat rivals with much longer political pedigrees. Democrats have not gone through a similar insurgency. As a result, they have more entrenched incumbents, many of them representing parts of the country with large numbers of Latino voters.
Latino Republicans like Martinez and Sandoval "are the emerging faces of the conservative cause," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told activists at a lunch sponsored by the Hispanic Leadership Network, where he sat onstage with the two governors. The three discussed education, one of Bush's signature issues, as well as how the party can improve its share of Latino voters.
Republicans, he added, have an opportunity to appeal to Latinos "if we just stop acting stupid."
Bush did not elaborate on what he considered "stupid" practices, but he has publicly criticized some of the party's positions on immigration. (Bush's wife, Columba, was born in Mexico.)
Immigration forms the biggest stumbling block for Latinos who might consider switching their loyalties to the GOP. Polls indicate the party's unyielding stance toward illegal immigrants forms a threshold issue that blocks many Latino voters from considering Republican appeals on other subjects.
Many party strategists argue that Republicans need to moderate their position, but an effort to do so during the presidency of Bush's brother, George W. Bush, collapsed because of divisions among Republicans. Since then, the subject has been one that most of the party's elected officials try to avoid.
Asked by reporters after the lunch about the problem that immigration policy poses for the party, the former governor at first demurred, insisting that "the main issue" for Latinos, like everyone else, "is how do you create a climate of sustained economic growth."
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Pressed on the issue, Bush conceded, as aides sought to extract him from the surrounding cameras, "It's a symbol, it's an important symbol."
For their part, Martinez and Sandoval stuck to safer ground as they took turns casting their own political conversion stories as examples of how the party can break through to Latino voters.
Sandoval recalled reaching voting age in the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. "I admired him," he said. "I wanted to be just like him."
As he talks to Latino audiences in Nevada, he said, he pitches a message about entrepreneurship and hard work. "It's all about education. It's all about opportunity," he said,
Similarly, Martinez noted that she had been raised as a Democrat.
"My parents were Democrats, and I registered as a Democrat and gave it no thought," Martinez said. But, she added, "I was raised conservative" with strict parents and a Catholic school education that inculcated conservative values. When she decided to run for district attorney in Las Cruces, she met with Republican leaders "and we talked about issues."
After that meeting, she said, "I turned to my husband and said, 'We're Republicans.'"