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Republicans risk becoming a ‘minority party,’ former chairman says

By David Lauter, Tribune Washington Bureau –

TAMPA, Fla.—The GOP risks being “relegated to being a minority party” for years if it fails to “find a way to make that connection” with Latino voters, former Republican national chairman Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida warned Wednesday.

Speaking along with Martinez at a forum on Republicans and Latinos, sponsored by ABC News, Univision and the National Journal, Republican consultant Ana Navarro offered an even blunter assessment of the party’s current standing.

“Where his numbers are right now, we should be pressing the panic button,” she said, referring to Mitt Romney’s level of Latino support.

The issue of how to reach out to the fast-growing Latino population has become a key dividing line among Republicans. The party relies heavily on a base of support among white voters in their 60s and older, many of whom are uneasy about the rapid demographic changes the nation is undergoing. Opposition to illegal immigration, in particular, is a fervently held position among many Republican voters, and Romney won the nomination in part by taking a harder line on that issue than some of his rivals, especially Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

On the other side of the debate, party strategists and elected officials from Florida, Texas and other border states worry deeply about the estrangement between Republicans and Latinos, despite the conservative values that many Latino households espouse.

The party had a “huge missed opportunity” to resolve its tensions in 2007, when Republican opposition forced President George W. Bush to scrap his effort to push a comprehensive immigration reform bill, said Martinez, who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Bush’s Cabinet and then served one term in the Senate. He was chairman of the party in 2006 and 2007.

Bush’s bill would have toughened border security and allowed some of the country’s estimated 11 million illegal residents to become citizens. Since the bill’s failure, the party has “lost its way” on immigration, Martinez said. “We have to go back to the drawing board.”

The mathematics of the issue are stark, said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “There’s a critical need for Republican candidates to do a great deal better” among Latinos than they currently are, he said.

Romney campaign officials have set a goal of winning 61 percent of white voters to overcome the huge advantage that President Barack Obama appears likely to have among Latino and black voters, Ayres said. That level, which would match the high points hit by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, is only “even a possibility” because of Obama’s “historic unpopularity” among whites, particularly those without a college education, he said.

In future elections, Republicans will not be able to count on a Democratic nominee who generates a level of racial polarization like Obama, he said. As a result, if Republicans do not do better among Latinos, the party won’t just be worrying about holding on to Florida, he said. “We’re going to be talking about how not to lose Texas.”

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