Politics Q&A: Ana Navarro on Florida's Hispanic Republicans

One of the state's top experts on Hispanic politics in the GOP discusses the dynamics for Tuesday's primary -- without a candidate of her own to cheer.

Four years ago, Miami-based GOP strategist Ana Navarro served as the co-chair of John McCain's Hispanic advisory council. This year, she's a bystander to the 2012 primary contest: She worked on Jon Huntsman's campaign, but hasn't signed on with another candidate since Huntsman's presidential effort ended. As Tuesday's Florida primary looms, Navarro, who came to Florida from Nicaragua as a child, talks about both parties' problems with Hispanic voters, the virtues of a long campaign, and what lies ahead for the GOP in the Sunshine State and beyond.

What are you seeing on the ground in Florida?

Romney has out-organized and outspent Gingrich, and in a state the size and diversity of Florida, organization and money matters. I think Romney has spent $15 or $16 million, and Gingrich is under $4 million. Because of that financial inequality, Gingrich really needed some great debate performances and earned media to even the playing field. I think what you saw happen (in the two debates last week) was the expectation bars were lowered for Romney and heightened for Gingrich after South Carolina.

Romney had the two best debates he's had in 19 debates. His attacks were much more direct and effective than before when they were all over the place. Romney won the two debates in Florida and Newt Gingrich did not, and Newt Gingrich needed those debates to even the playing field. To tell you the truth, I think the winner of the Florida primary is going to be Brett O'Donnell (Romney's newly hired debate coach).

What do you make of the primary field?

I think all of them are getting better through this primary process. I don't understand why there is such angst in the Republican establishment backing Romney over a long primary. Romney is clearly a better candidate today than he was when this started or than he would have been had he been handed it on a silver platter. I prefer to air out dirty laundry in January, not September. I don't understand why people, particularly people backing Romney, are making this case, 'It's over! It's over! Everybody pull out!'

There's a feeling of entitlement -- wanting to convince everybody Romney is the inevitable one. It's short-sighted. We've never seen a primary more long, arduous and hard-fought as four years ago between Obama and Clinton, and it helped Obama.

How has the Florida primary changed the emphasis of the race?

I think this Florida primary is a terrific dry run for any campaign for the general election, because they have to practice honing their messages to different subgroups and communities. Until Florida rolled around, we have not really see an in-depth discussion of immigration policy and Latin American policy. Those things are going to come up again in the fall.

How much of a factor will Hispanic voters be on Tuesday?

The percentage (of registered Republicans) is 11.5. I suspect they will end up being 12 to 15 percent of primary turnout.

Have you detected a change in tone among the candidates, particularly when they talk about topics like immigration?

Absolutely. In Iowa, Mitt Romney was promising an absolute veto of the Dream Act. He got to  Florida and suddenly it started getting more nuanced. In Iowa and South Carolina, Mitt Romney was attacking Newt Gingrich for being soft on immigration; in Florida all of a sudden he was indignant at being called too hard on immigrants.

What about Gingrich, has he changed his tune at all?

I actually think Gingrich has been pretty much consistent. He's been making the argument for those citizen review boards (community groups that would adjudicate the cases of long-term illegal immigrants in order to prevent traumatic family breakups). He has given himself room to maneuver on immigration on the left and right.

Is all the tough rhetoric we've heard from the candidates on immigration going to be a problem for them now that they have to appeal to a different audience?

Most of the Republican Hispanic voters here are Cuban-American. They don't have first-hand experience with immigration issues. In this primary, in Florida, the economy and pocketbook issues are taking precedence over an issue like immigration. Where it could end up being a problem is in winning the Latino vote in the swing Southwest states in the fall.

Democrats seem to think it could be a fatal problem for the Republican nominee. How big a problem do you think it will be?

It depends on how they handle it. If he's the nominee, Mitt Romney has a problem. But so does Barack Obama. There's something in the Latino community called "la promesa de Obama" -- Obama's promise. He made very specific promises to the Latino community. He committed to enacting comprehensive immigration reform within his first year. It will be up to the Republicans and their nominee to remind Latinos that Barack Obama broke his promise. So far, I've been frustrated because, instead of focusing on Obama's failures on immigration, we (Republicans) are aiming at each other. We're losing the opportunity to exploit a great vulnerability of Barack Obama's with the Latino community.

You worked for the Huntsman campaign. What happened?

It wasn't his time. You have to have the right candidate at the right time -- and then you have to have a bunch of stars align. This was not Jon Huntsman's time. I think he would make a better candidate four years from now for having gone through this. He learned lessons which would serve him well in four years. Politics is a pendulum. We'll see if it swings to a point where Jon Huntsman's message would pass muster in a Republican primary.

How does this election cycle strike you as different from four years ago?

There seem to have been more committed voters for the candidates back then. I've been amazed by how fickle the Republican voters have been in this process. Candidates are up one day, down the other. Candidates' fortunes turn on a dime. They can be determined by a good or bad debate performance. There doesn't seem to be that "I will walk over shards of glass" commitment for any candidate. There continues to be this undeclared war between the establishment and the base, which did not seem to be as intense four years ago.

McCain came in third in Iowa, won New Hampshire, won South Carolina, won Florida, and it was over. The difference between four years ago and today is it ain't gonna be over on Tuesday. This barbershop quartet is going to keep on singing for a long time to come.

Image credit: Getty Images/Emmanuel Dunand