Democratic, GOP Conventions Court Hispanics With Key Speaking Roles

Both parties take their shot at persuading Latino voters, who are key to 2012 and future contests.

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CHARLOTTE – San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will become the first Latino to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night. The speech will be a continuation of a pattern seen in last week's Republican convention in Tampa, of bringing Latinos to center stage in the battle for the White House.

"Never before have we seen such a well-orchestrated and strategic attempt to reach this voting bloc," said Monica Lozano, CEO of impreMedia, at a briefing in Charlotte.

At last week's GOP convention in Tampa, Latino elected officials like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez grabbed the spotlight. Latinos will also have high-profile roles here in Charlotte, with two members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus speaking tonight, and convention chair and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa making an appearance.

[Photo gallery: Charlotte Prepares for Democratic Convention]

Still, while both parties are reaching out, Democrats are far ahead with Hispanic voters. According to a new poll from impreMedia and Latino Decisions, 64 percent of Latinos support President Barack Obama, while 30 percent say they would vote for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

Perhaps more disturbing for Republicans is the fact that, despite GOP efforts in Spanish language media and in highlighting Latino elected officials, only 17 percent of Latinos believe that Republicans are "doing a good job" of reaching out to Hispanics. More than three times that figure, 55 percent, believe Democrats are doing a good job. Meanwhile, 72 percent say Republicans either "don't care about" or are "hostile towards" Hispanics, compared to 32 percent who believe the same for Democrats.

Of course, Latinos' preferences, like those of any other demographic group, can shift widely by election year. Republican George W. Bush took 44 percent of the Latino vote as part of his re-election in 2004, while GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona took only around 31 percent in 2008. And the community appears to have been swayed at least a little after the Republican convention: Romney's 30 percent support right now from Latinos is up from 26 percent the week before.

"It's not a permanent gap, and that's what is so important. This is a vote that can be persuaded," says Lozano. "If you have the right candidate with the right strategy and the right messaging and done so in a respectful way, Republicans can pick up a significant part of Latino votes."

That may mean that some Republicans will have to reconsider their stances on immigration, the second-most-important topic to Latinos, behind the economy, according to Lozano. While Republicans led the charge behind strict immigration laws in Georgia and Alabama, there is a diversity of opinions within the party on immigration: Rubio, for example, earlier this year urged fellow Republicans to accept compromise on President Obama's DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented people brought to the United States as children.

This contributes to "a real sense of division and dysfunction within the Republican Party," says National Council of La Raza CEO and President Janet Murguia. Republicans can win over many more Latinos, she says, but first they need to "make up their mind about the kind of party and candidates they want to put up."

Garnering the votes of this fast-growing population is important not only for 2012 but for long-run political success. Around 12.2 million Latinos will vote in 2012, an astounding 26 percent bump from the last presidential election, and there is plenty of room for more growth: roughly 1 in 4 children under 10 in America is Latino, and more Latinos are hitting voting age every day.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter or via E-mail at dkurtzleben@usnews.com.

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