Republicans are launching a massive jobs-focused campaign in six battleground states to woo Hispanic voters they believe are pivotal to their efforts to remove President Obama from the White House in November.
"We are going to engage Hispanics and Latinos like we never have before," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Monday. "Latinos are clamoring for change, and the Republican Party is here to offer them the change they are looking for."
Republicans have debated among themselves whether the party's generally hardline stance against illegal immigrants -- and the GOP's rejection of immigration law reforms until the U.S.-Mexico border is locked down -- have alienated Hispanics. President George W. Bush, a former border state governor, pushed for comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants as part of an effort to reach out to the nation's fastest growing voting bloc. But he was rebuffed by a Republican Congress, who dubbed the citizenship plan "amnesty" for lawbreakers.
Hispanics now overwhelmingly back Obama over presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. A recent Fox News poll shows 70 percent siding with Obama and just 14 percent favoring Romney.
Republicans are trying to narrow that gap by dispatching party operatives to Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia with the goal of winning over at least 40 percent of Hispanic voters in November -- just enough to offset Obama's expected losses among white voters, Priebus said.
The GOP's outreach to Hispanics skirts immigration. Instead, it focuses on the economy, government spending and the national debt.
GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney recently acknowledged Republicans' general election weaknesses on immigration. He suggested at a private fundraiser last week that Republicans should come up with an alternative to Democrats' Dream Act, which eases the pathway to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants.
But Romney can't win more Latino votes simply on a promise of immigration reforms, said Glenn Llopis, founder of California's nonpartisan Center for Hispanic Leadership. Romney needs to show that he understands the economic plight of the Latino community in America, which includes an unemployment rate 2 percentage points above the national average, Llopis said.
"Romney does not connect authentically with the Hispanic community -- he has shut out the community," Llopis said. "I would recommend one thing to Mitt Romney: That if he wants to win, he has to start admitting that he knows nothing about the [Hispanic] community."
GOP leaders have been urging Romney to pick Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a popular Cuban-American, as his running mate to increase the Republican ticket's appeal to Latinos.
While Obama is heavily favored among Hispanic voters, the community isn't entirely pleased with the president, analysts said. Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to make immigration reform a priority once elected. The president not only failed to pass major reform legislation, but was unable to get even more modest initiatives, like the Dream Act, through Congress -- even when his fellow Democrats controlled it.
The president is responding with his own campaign initiative targeting Hispanics on Wednesday. The "Latinos for Obama" campaign will include string of house parties headlined by Hispanic comedian George Lopez.