Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have all applauded Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and hinted that he is on their short lists for a VP slot. And GOP insiders say Rubio could inject some much-needed enthusiasm into a nomination race with many Republicans still on the fence. [See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]
But while Rubio possesses a consistently conservative record, charms audiences with charismatic speeches and represents one of the largest up-for-grabs constituencies in the country, a recent poll shows that the Cuban-American senator wouldn't necessarily pull Latinos into the GOP tent en masse.
"At this time in our economy, it's bread and butter issues Latinos care about, and they are more in favor of government solutions than the population at large and certainly more in favor of them than the GOP," says Brookings Instituition demographer William Frey.
Frey argues healthcare, education, the economy, and immigration reform will be definitive issues for Latino voters in 2012. And Rubio seems to be on the wrong side of them all.
"Latinos are not just looking for a co-ethnic, they are looking for a co-ethnic who is articulating a message that they agree with," says Louis DeSipio, an associate professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of California Irvine.
Rubio opposed Obama's healthcare legislation saying it would "drive costs up, bankrupt the country and create bureaucratic red tape." And he voted against the so-called "DREAM Act"—which would provide in-state college tuition benefits to children of illegal immigrants—even though 81 percent of Latinos supported it. [See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican party.]
DeSipio adds that Rubio, even if his record was better aligned with Latinos, couldn't make up for all of the inflammatory rhetoric that has flown around the GOP this election cycle.
"Despite the symbolism of Rubio, he might not help someone like Romney get much of the Latino vote," DeSipio says, "Candidates would have to backtrack a lot."
Raul Garcia, a Mexican immigrant and volunteer with a leading Latino civil rights group, says the GOP has isolated voters like himself too much already. And simply adding a Latino face to the ballot won't help the Republicans salvage their losses.
"He doesn't understand us," Garcia says. "When Latinos ask 'what do you have in common with us?' The only thing he will be able to say is 'I have a Hispanic last name.' "
But Latinos aren't so sure Obama understands their issues anymore either.
In 2008, 67 percent of Hispanic voters cast their ballots for President Barack Obama, but Latino enthusiasm for the president has waned.
"The Democrats are at Risk," DeSipio says. "There is often rhetoric about the Latino community being a swing electorate. Where the swing occurs isn't that they vote for Republicans, but that they swing in and out of the electorate."
In 2008, Latino turnout at the polls helped Obama secure his victory in a state like Florida.
Now, Latino unemployment sits at over 13 percent, four points higher than the national average, and a Pew Research poll reveals 54 percent of Latinos believe they've suffered more in the economic downturn than any other group.
Between the president's deportation policy, which 59 percent of Latino voters oppose and the recession-ridden economy, Hispanics are fed up.
Guadalupe Hernandez, who organizes the get out the vote effort for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, says she's seen a significant slip in support for the president.
"It's been harder to get Latino voters involved because they feel like Obama hasn't done anything," she says. But while some influential Hispanic groups are skeptical of Rubio's national appeal, his strength with Cuban voters in Florida, a swing state, could prove pivotal.
There are more than 1.2 million Cubans in Florida and Brookings' Frey says the group tends to be "better off" and more politically conservative on economic and welfare issues than other Latino groups.
"Florida is the only state where a Cuban American will have a particular impact," Frey says. "Everything being equal, he might get a little bit of the vote to edge out a win for the GOP there, but I don't think he'll be a big game changer nationally."
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