President Barack Obama's campaign on Wednesday launched an aggressive national effort to energize and rally Latino voters who could help him carry key states like Colorado, Florida and Nevada and hand him a second term.
"This election is an opportunity for the Latino community in this country to send a message" by helping "someone who stands on our side," Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez told reporters on a conference call to unveil "Latinos for Obama."
"It's no secret that Latinos will be a deciding factor in this election," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said on the same call.
The campaign also launched Spanish-language television ads in Colorado, Florida and Nevada that star Obama supporters touting the president's commitment to financial aid for students, his landmark health care overhaul and his personal story.
"The personal story of President Obama is a story of hard work, of struggle," organizer Lynnette Acosta says in one of the ads.
In 2008, Obama carried Latino voters by a 67-31 margin over John McCain. In the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats saw that edge shrink to 60-38, while Republican Latinos carried some high-profile races. New Mexico anointed its first Latina governor, Susana Martinez. Nevada picked its first Latino governor, Brian Sandoval. And telegenic tea party ally Marco Rubio won Florida's open Senate seat—and launched fevered speculation that he could be the party's vice presidential pick in 2012.
But the president's party got mostly good news from recent polls, including one by Fox News Latino, that showed Obama with a massive 70 percent-14 percent advantage. (That survey also found that about one-third of Latino voters would consider voting Republican if the party puts a Latino on the ticket.) Obama's advantage was 67-27 in the latest Pew poll.
The Republican National Committee this week launched an attempt to turn those fortunes around, targeting Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia. And Romney himself underscored the urgency of winning over Latinos, telling an audience at a recent private fundraiser that "we have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party" to narrow a gap that otherwise "spells doom for us."
The former Massachusetts governor underlined that Republicans must come up with their own version of the DREAM Act that gives young immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children a narrow pathway to citizenship. (Rubio reportedly has plans to do just that with a measure that would allow them to remain on U.S. soil but bar them from citizenship.) And Romney faces pressure to soften his stance on immigration.
Menendez and Messina noted that Romney has vowed to veto the Democratic version of the legislation if he is elected and Congress adopts the bill; he also called Arizona's draconian anti-illegal immigration law a "model" for other states. The two Democrats also accused Republicans of blocking a more ambitious comprehensive immigration bill. Obama has been promising, in interviews with Latino media, that he will take up that cause if he wins a second term.
Romney will be "the most extreme nominee that the Republican Party has ever had" on immigration, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a co-chair of Obama's campaign, said on the conference call.
Messina acknowledged that Obama is vulnerable on the economy—Latino unemployment was at about 10.3 percent in March, against 9.7 percent in January 2009—saying "there is much more to do." But he accused Republicans of championing "huge program cuts" in financial aid and other programs he called "essential to the Latino community."
Asked about Latino criticism of the Obama administration's aggressive deportation of undocumented immigrants, Menendez noted that the president has moved to focus those efforts on criminals.
"The reality is that the president has followed the law," said the senator, who stressed that those efforts were being "perfected" and suggested that Latinos "can live with" Obama's approach.
The Romney campaign scoffed at the outreach effort, with spokesman Albert Martinez saying that "slick campaign ads and Hollywood celebrities can't erase President Obama's record of failure" on issues like unemployment and high gas prices.
The Obama campaign announced the conference call with twin press releases, one in English and one in Spanish, which translated "Latinos for Obama" as ... "Latinos for Obama."
Update, 3:48 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include a reaction from the Romney campaign.
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