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U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney (L) greets a group of men who participated during a Hispanic roundtable meeting in Tempe, Arizona April 20, 2012. (Joshua Lott/Reuters/Joshua Lott/Reuters)
U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney (L) greets a group of men who participated during a Hispanic roundtable meeting in Tempe, Arizona April 20, 2012. (Joshua Lott/Reuters/Joshua Lott/Reuters)

Stand on immigration reform will cost Romney Hispanic votes Add to ...

Mitt Romney was not betraying any secrets when he was overheard last week telling a group of donors that dismal Republican polling among Hispanics “spells doom for us.”

That writing has been on the wall for some time now. But it seems most Republicans figure doomsday is far enough off – in 2016 or later – that they can afford to fight another election on the backs of Latinos. The incredibly shrinking GOP base demands it.

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Mr. Romney may either be the last Republican candidate to get away with the tactic, winning the White House while overwhelmingly losing Latinos, or the first to suffer the consequences of a permanent demographic shift that will transform U.S. politics.

The presumptive Republican nominee spent the primary season taking a hard line on illegal immigration, rejecting even modest reforms that could build bridges with Hispanics.

“I have no earthly idea what Mitt Romney is going to try to tell Latinos,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political science professor, in an interview. “If I were betting, I would say he gets 25 per cent of the Latino vote on election day.”

While Republicans routinely suggest Latino views on social issues make Hispanics a natural GOP constituency, Prof. Barreto, founder of an independent polling firm called Latino Decisions, called that idea “a myth.” Hispanics are increasingly liberal, he said.

What’s more, they express overwhelming support for President Barack Obama’s health-care reform law, legislation that Mr. Romney has vowed to neuter on his first day in the Oval Office.

Still, no issue mobilizes Hispanic voters like immigration reform.

To be sure, the estimated 11 million overwhelmingly Hispanic, illegal residents in the United States cannot vote. But there are 21 million Latino citizens who can, and most of them have an illegal relative, friend or neighbour.

Mr. Obama may have reneged on his promise to implement comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, during in his first year in office. But a Republican Party that is openly hostile to illegal immigrants and their kin has left Latino voters with no place else to go.

This week, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the constitutionality of a controversial Arizona law aimed at curbing illegal immigration, Hispanic voters will be once again reminded who their friends are. Expect Republicans nationwide to call on the court to uphold the legislation, which by any measure smacks of mean-spiritedness.

Not long ago, Mr. Romney hailed the Arizona law – which aims to encourage illegal immigrants to leave the state or face constant harassment by local police – as “a model,” and took on its chief architect as an adviser to his campaign.

The court hearing will dominate the U.S. Spanish-language media this week, reminding Hispanics that Mr. Romney sided with the anti-immigration Arizona Republicans who passed the law. No matter how much he tries to finesse his views, he cannot erase the tapes of him hailing the legislation.

Last week, Mr. Romney indicated to donors that he thinks he can win over just enough Latino voters – he does not need a majority of them – to snatch the White House in November by tapping into their dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy.

At the Palm Beach, Fla., fundraiser where he was overheard, Mr. Romney also reportedly called for “a Republican Dream Act.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been crafting such a bill, though he has been vague about its contents.

The real Dream Act aimed to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children, as long as they attend college or join the military. It was voted down in the Senate in 2010 as five conservative Democrats sided with Republicans to uphold a filibuster.

Putting Mr. Rubio, the bilingual son of Cuban immigrants, on the GOP ticket is seen by some Republicans as a way of appealing to Latino voters. Early polls suggest otherwise.

But without a modest breakthrough among Latinos, Mr. Romney is tempting fate. A Pew Research Center poll last week had him trailing Mr. Obama among Hispanic voters by 40 percentage points. With that kind of deficit, Mr. Romney would need to win massive majorities among white voters in key states to carry the election in November.

Such a dismal showing would make it nearly impossible for Mr. Romney to win Florida, Nevada and Colorado, where Hispanics account for about 15 per cent of voters. GOP-friendly Cuban Americans are no longer a majority of Latino voters in Florida and without making inroads among other Hispanics there, Mr. Romney risks losing that state.

Even Arizona, one of the reddest states despite an electorate that is 19 per cent Hispanic, could be in play if Mr. Romney cannot find a way to woo more Latino voters.

Mr. Obama won 67 per cent of the Hispanic vote in 2008. And though he has been accused of taking Hispanics for granted, he did put the first Latina on the Supreme Court.

Last week, the Obama campaign launched Spanish-language television ads in Florida, Colorado and Nevada. The President has Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria and San Antonio’s charismatic 37-year-old mayor, Julian Castro, stumping for him.

For Republicans, it may spell doom sooner rather than later.

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