The May jobs report handed presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney a potent line of attack against President Obama in the battle for the Hispanic vote: The unemployment rate in that demographic jumped from 10.3 percent to 11 percent, its highest level in 2012.
Romney seized on the bad news as proof of the president's shoddy economic stewardship in a speech this week at a Hispanic-owned business in Fort Worth, Texas. Prominent Hispanic surrogates piled on, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who was named this week to head Romney's Hispanic steering committee.
Romney supporters also pushed back hard against Obama strategist David Axelrod's recent remark that it would be "an insult to the Hispanic community'' for Romney to choose Rubio as his running mate in light of his campaign's hard-line stance against illegal immigration.
But the Romney campaign has yet to put money behind its message. It spent a mere $12,000 on Spanish-language ads this week in Raleigh, N.C., and Cleveland, according to media trackers. Romney also released a free Internet ad that mocks a clip from one of Obama's spots in which a supporter says in Spanish, "We're on the right path.'' "Really?'' Romney's video asks, as statistics about the Hispanic community's economic struggles roll down the screen.
It's a strong rebuttal, but one that so far could be drowned out by President Obama's six-figure spending in Spanish-language media. "The president has our back,'' says pop star Marc Anthony, who will headline a concert fundraiser for Obama on June 26 in Miami Beach and stars in a new video promoting Obama's Hispanic outreach.
After a robust fundraising month in May, Romney appears to be testing his message in the battleground states of Ohio and North Carolina before making any decisions about a Spanish media blitz. In the meantime, Obama is pulling way ahead. A Latino Decision poll released on Friday shows Obama with a 43-point lead over Romney among Hispanic voters nationwide.
"He's an investor," Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra of California said of Romney in an interview on Thursday with Fox News Latino. "And for him to invest such a tiny fraction of his campaign money to reach out to Latinos I think is a clear sign he doesn't care much about Latinos."
Romney doesn't have to win the Hispanic vote to get to the White House. But he does have to garner enough of the community's support to win a handful of key battleground states, including Florida.
And if the 2010 governor's race in that state is a guide, Romney needs to boost his presence on Spanish-language television and radio before November.
Exit polls show Republican Rick Scott narrowly carried the Hispanic vote -- despite a primary campaign that promised to bring Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration to the state. He spent roughly $3 million in Spanish-language ads that focused on his jobs agenda.
"Scott was on the wrong side of the immigration issue, but he invested in Hispanic media,'' said Democratic strategist Freddy Balsera, who advises Obama on Hispanic outreach. "Investment translates into votes.''
Certainly, many Hispanic voters will be exposed to Romney's English-language ads. But media experts say penetrating the Hispanic market demands targeted advertising. Romney aired Spanish-language ads before the Florida primary that featured Cuban-American members of Congress from Miami touting Romney's economic agenda and opposition to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. He dominated the Hispanic vote, drawing 54 percent, and handily won the Jan. 31 primary.
"I don't have any insight into our future spending plans on Hispanic media, but I know this: Hispanic Americans, like all Americans, are worried about jobs,'' Gutierrez said in an interview Friday with National Journal. "They want a growing economy and prosperity, and it's very obvious this president can't do that.''
Gutierrez was a leading supporter of the Bush administration's efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Romney seemed to support the legislation at the time, but he has decried allowing undocumented workers to earn legal status as "amnesty'' since he began running for president in 2007. "The answer is self-deportation,'' Romney said in a debate shortly before the Florida primary vote.
Asked about their differences on immigration policy, Gutierrez said that polls show the economy and education are more pressing concerns for Hispanic voters.
"I think what Hispanics resent is the language, the insinuations and the sense that people may not respect them. They will not have that problem with Gov. Romney,'' Gutierrez said. "The governor wants to review our legal immigration system and he understands its importance for long-term competitiveness. He's looking at it strategically. Obama is looking at it tactically and politically.''
The Obama campaign responded to Romney's announcement of his Hispanic steering committee with a statement calling him "the most extreme presidential candidate we've seen on immigration.'' Obama supporters are also pointing this week to the latest Latino Decisions poll, which found strong support for Dream Act legislation that would offer citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who attend college or enter the military. Obama backs the legislation; Romney doesn't.
But the downturn in Hispanic unemployment will undoubtedly complicate Obama's outreach, and it comes at a time of mounting criticism of his failure to pass immigration reform and his administration's aggressive deportation policies. Supporters of the Dream Act are also urging the president to award temporary legal status to these young people so they could apply for work permits and drivers licenses.
Several Hispanic community leaders are scheduled to hold a press conference on Monday that calls the administration's efforts to moderate its harsh deportation policies "a failure.''
"We've been disappointed that the president didn't make immigration a higher priority during his first years in office,'' said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. "We applauded his efforts to make sure ordinary immigrants without papers aren't caught up in the deportation mill, but one year later, the policy has not made things better and in some ways made it worse.''
With immigration advocates firing hard at both Obama and Romney, the Hispanic vote can't be taken for granted by either side.
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