Rick Perry's Advantage: Hispanic Votes

Rick Perry in front of flag - AP Photo:Jim Cole - banner.jpg

When he spoke at a conference of Hispanic elected officials in June, Perry boasted about appointing the first Hispanic women to serve on the Texas Supreme Court and as secretary of state. But audience members cringed when he joked about appointing Jose Cuervas to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission because his name sounds like the brand of tequila.

He never mentioned the sanctuary cities' bill.

"That issue was really brewing in the state, and for him not to mention that was really odd,'' said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which held its conference in San Antonio. "He certainly has a familiarity with the Hispanic community, but I don't know whether that will translate into support in an election.''

Perry has an opportunity to make a splash in a Hispanic-heavy state when the Florida Republican Party hosts a mock election in Orlando on September 24. Bachmann and Romney have said they will not contest the straw poll, though their names will likely appear on the ballot. That means that Perry would have a chance to score a victory over his two biggest challengers if he chooses to participate.

So far, only a couple of the lesser-known Republican candidates have made a point to demonstrate outreach to the Hispanic community. Jon Huntsman recently announced that Jeb Bush Jr., the son of the former governor, will lead a program targeting young voters, while Republican fundraiser Ana Navarro will serve as his national Hispanic chair. Newt Gingrich also announced a Hispanic outreach program and an endorsement from Republican consultant Lionel Sosa.

Huntsman is the only Republican candidate who has clearly favored a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Perry did not take a strong stance for or against former President Bush's comprehensive immigration reform plan in 2006, though he was part of a bipartisan group of border-state governors who urged Congress to pass legislation that "secures the border, protects taxpayers, and restores the rule of law by practically dealing with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country."

That sounds like amnesty to some conservative Republicans. During the Republican primary, expect Perry to call for border security, above all else. Though he has criticized the idea of a border fence that could fully cover the entire border, he has said that "strategic fencing" in some areas are helpful.

"There's a concern about who is the real Rick Perry,'' said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a think tank. "We'll see if he can neutralize the perception that Republicans are the anti-immigration party.''

Image credit: Jim Cole/AP

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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