LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- A high-profile gathering of Latino public officials turned out to be a win-win for President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, according to interviews with those who attended. Democrats did not take Obama to task for waiting so long to stop deportations of young illegal immigrants, and Republicans expressed relief at Romney's presence and softer tone.
"I think people are ready to give both of them, really both of them some pass," said Ron Garcia, a Republican from Southern California and a member of the board of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "There's some time now to digest what the two candidates have to offer."
The fast-growing Latino community is a pivotal voting bloc in several battleground states, including Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona. Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008 and is doing even better than that in some polls this year. Analysts estimate that Romney needs to win as much as 40 percent of the Latino vote to win the White House, a goal he is not reaching in several states and one made harder by the tough immigration rhetoric he and other Republican candidates employed during the primaries.
Obama's standing with Latinos was reflected in the enthusiastic cheers and multiple standing ovations he received at NALEO. Better yet for him: the only subject that came close to generating as much fervor as his new policy on undocumented youth was his mention of the Affordable Care Act, a toxic subject in much of the country.
"I was very moved by it," said Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor from Phoenix, Ariz. "I saw a toughness that I had not seen the last time he came to NALEO and I like that a lot, because he has done so much -- in terms of not only what he did with the executive decision (on young immigrants) but also with the economy."
Her chief of staff, Terri Leija, said Obama's speech motivated her to get out the vote.
While Obama had a natural advantage at the conference, Romney benefitted from offering his own ideas for immigration reform in front of a polite, if unenthusiastic audience. His proposals, aimed in part at keeping families together and highly educated foreign students in the United States, allowed him to move away from his much-scorned "self-deportation" language and reintroduce himself as a general-election nominee sympathetic to the concerns of Latino voters.
"I was a little upset with him over some of the harshness with respect to immigration in the past, but what he said today was something I find appealing," said Juan Zapata, a self-described moderate Republican who chairs the NALEO Education fund. "Softening that rhetoric with regards to immigration will definitely go a long way towards helping Republicans."
If Romney's speech was part of the learning process of how to speak to Hispanic voters, "he's on the right track," said Longwood, Fla., city councilman Bob Cortes, a Republican.
Key to the satisfaction of several Republicans at the conference was a sense that Romney did not outright reject the ideas behind the DREAM Act, legislation that would create a path to citizenship to people brought to the United States illegally as children, if they pursue a college education or military service.
However, several Democrats -- including Obama -- pointed to Romney's emphatic opposition to the DREAM Act during the primary campaign. Many called Romney's ideas vague and accused him of deliberately avoiding saying whether he would overturn Obama's new policy of letting young undocumented immigrants apply for temporary deportation reprieves and work permits (Romney said in his speech he would propose comprehensive reform that would "supersede" Obama's order).
"This is clearly a contrast between action and words," said Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat. "We heard a bunch of great ideas about immigration policies, but we know that when Gov. Romney is fundraising in other parts of the country, he talks about vetoing the DREAM Act, building walls, doing things that take Latinos back for generations."
Many gave Romney credit for appearing at the conference even with the knowledge that the crowd would be largely comprised of Democrats supportive of Obama. "I think he basically showed them that he did care one way or another, he did believe in the Latino vote and that he did believe that immigration is an issue," said Republican political consultant Esteban Ferreiro. "I think he did what he needed to do within his beliefs."
Even Democrats like Utah State Senate minority leader Ross Romero said Romney's intentions seemed sincere, even if his policy proposals were too general. "The fact that he spent 20 minutes, 30 minutes walking the rope line after his speech said to me that he knew he had work to do, he knew that he needed to make those one-on-one connections, and the fact that we were respectful when he was speaking lent for that opportunity," Romero said.
Romney is unlikely to make much headway with his attempts to convince the Hispanic community that the president is taking their votes for granted. Most Obama supporters, like Leija, blame Republicans in Congress for blocking immigration reform. And as for the charge that Obama broke a promise by not appearing at NALEO in every year of his presidency?
"I've been a member of NALEO for 12 years and I've never seen Gov. Romney here," Martinez Fischer said. "The fact of the matter is, [Obama is] the president of the United States and he's the leader of the world and we don't expect him to be at every place every time we have a convening. But we know where we stand within his policies."