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As Republicans shift to West, attracting Latinos is a challenge

By Matt O’Brien, Contra Costa Times –

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Jesse Gutierrez wants to help Latino voters find their niche in the Grand Old Party. He uses a seven-question survey to peg people as liberal or conservative, believing he will help some Latinos discover they were always meant to be Republicans.

But as the GOP primary season pivots toward the West, careening into the Nevada caucus Saturday, the Reno area activist and former San Francisco Bay Area resident worries Republicans are losing the Latino vote.

“There needs to be a little more outreach, a little more education and a softer approach to immigration,” said Gutierrez, 60, who directs a fledgling conservative network called Nevada Latinos for Prosperity. “The Democrats take them for granted and the Republicans don’t do anything about it,” he said.

In Nevada, Colorado on Tuesday and Arizona on Feb. 28, the Republicans have a chance to attract or repel Western Latinos, voters key to winning these swing states in the November election. Activists like Gutierrez think many Latinos are socially and fiscally conservative with strong family and Christian values and ought to find the GOP appealing.

But Ron Paul, the first to make his case to Nevada Latinos at a forum Wednesday, underscored the problem. The Texas congressman’s comments to 150 Las Vegas Latinos repulsed the head of the bipartisan group that hosted him.

Paul condemned Latino scapegoating and promised a generous legal immigration policy but said it would be too expensive to give young illegal immigrants legal residency through the Dream Act.

“I was basically stunned, to be honest with you,” said Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, Nevada’s oldest Latino political group. “His reasoning … was somewhat astonishing.”

Like most Western Latinos in this part of the country, Romero, who introduced Paul at the event, is a Democrat.

Latino voters in the West — from California to New Mexico — are more numerous, more concerned about immigration policy and far less inclined to vote Republican than the Cuban-American voters candidates courted in Miami.

“The Western Latino electorate is overwhelmingly Mexican-American and overwhelmingly Democratic,” said Gary Segura, a Stanford University professor.

“Their participation in Republican caucuses tends to be low. Those who do participate tend to be moderate.”

That means that although Nevada’s population is now 27 percent Latino, and its Latino voting population about 15 percent, the small base of Latino Republicans is unlikely to make a big difference in the Saturday caucus.

But come November, many experts say the Latino electorate in Nevada and other Western states is critical in deciding the next president.” It’s going to matter the most in the general election. We’re a battleground state, a swing state,” said Ken Fernandez, a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Turned off by Republican congressional candidate Sharron Angle’s harsh immigration tone, Latinos helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., keep his job in 2010, Fernandez said.

“If you articulate the control of the border, the control of immigration, in racial terms — and it has been done that way — you find that Latinos who’ve been born here, who’ve been citizens for generations, they start seeing that as a personal attack … And that’s not good for the GOP,” Fernandez said.

Nationwide, 67 percent of Latino voters identified with Democrats and 20 percent with Republicans in a recent Pew Hispanic Center poll, even though more Latinos described themselves as conservative than liberal.

The big question is what happens to the 13 percent in the middle.

“That’s a bigger swing than any other ethnic group in the United States,” Segura said.

Romney’s hard line on illegal immigration in South Carolina last month disenchanted Latinos in both parties.

He supported “self-deportation” popularized by immigration control groups and epitomized by the Arizona and Alabama crackdowns.

The strategy is to force illegal immigrants to leave by making it impossible for them to find jobs.

Romney also has promised to veto the Dream Act, the bill that would make citizenship attainable for high school graduates brought to the United States illegally at a young age.

Polls have shown up to 85 percent of Latino voters support it.

Romney’s immigration stances led one conservative Latino group, Somos Republicans, to endorse Newt Gingrich a few weeks ago.

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