TAMPA -- With Mitt Romney trailing Barack Obama badly among Hispanic voters in the polls, Republicans paraded out their top Hispanic political celebrities Tuesday and tapped the financial and influential heft of former Gov. Jeb Bush to help suture the gap.
Speaking at a panel discussion at the Republican National Convention, Bush repeated his frequent warning that the party must change its tone, an admonition he has frequently raised about the party’s hardline position on immigration.
“The future of our party is to reach out consistently to have a tone that is open and hospitable to people who share values,’’ he said, adding “the conservative cause would be the governing philosophy as far as the eye could see … and that’s doable if we just stop acting stupid.”
Bush was joined by two Latino governors in an event organized by the Hispanic Leadership Network, a newly formed advocacy group associated with the American Action Network. The group will finance issue ads and promote what it calls a “center-right” agenda.
Bush’s youngest son, Jeb Bush Jr, announced the emergence of SunPac, a Coral Gables–based organization that targets young Hispanics in Florida to support their issues and get involved in politics.
And the prime time television schedule included two of the convention’s five Hispanics headliners: Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz. The others, Gov. Luis Fortuño of Puerto Rico and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, will follow Wednesday. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will introduce Mitt Romney on Thursday.
The top draw for Republicans showcasing their Hispanic bonafides: Rubio.
Rubio, echoing the Romney-ticket line, said the campaign wants to reach out to Hispanics in the way it appeals to other groups. But first, he said, they must make progress on immigration.
“While that may not be the No. 1 issue in the Hispanic community, it is a gateway issue,” he told the Hispanic Leadership Network on Tuesday.
The goal of the high-profile push, said Jennifer Korn, director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, is to ignite the enthusiasm of the grass roots. “It’s an invitation to Hispanics to join the fold,’’ she said.
It’s a tall order for Republicans. GOP support among Hispanics had dwindled since former President George W. Bush was in the White House. When he was reelected in 2004, Bush garnered 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to some exit polls. Sen. John McCain got 31 percent in 2008, while the latest poll numbers show Mitt Romney with less than 30 percent.
Republican strategist Karl Rove warned this week that the Republican Party can’t do to Hispanics what it did with African Americans “or we might find ourselves at a point where we get 5 percent and we consider ourselves fortunate,’’ he said at a pre-convention panel discussion on Monday.
Democrats have spent $6.6 million on Hispanic-focused ads so far, according to Democratic media watchers, while Romney and the GOP have spent less than $1 million.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chairman of the Democratic National Convention, mocked the Republican Party’s Hispanic outreach.
“You can’t just trot out a brown face or a person with a Spanish surname,’’ he said.
There are 50 million Hispanics in the United States, representing about 16 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 Census. By 2030, there will be an estimated 78 million, or 22 percent of the population. Florida is home to more than 4.2 million Hispanics, who compose 23 percent of the state’s population.
Jeb Bush described what he called the “secret weapon” — the merging of cultures through families and marriage. He talked about his experience when he was a 17-year-old volunteer in Mexico and first saw his wife, Columba, and “fell in knock-down, crazy love.”
He pointed to his son, whose wife is a Canadian of Iraqi descent, and noted that when their 10-month-old daughter fills out her U.S. Census form “it will have so many hyphens that she’ll say ‘not applicable.’ ”
She is “what the future looks like,’’ he said.
New Mexico Gov.Martinez told the panel that the concerns of Hispanic voters are “no different” than that of other voters. “The problem is’’ Republicans too often assume they won’t win their vote, so they don’t visit those voters.
“I went to areas that Republicans running for state office never went,’’ she said. “I didn’t know how I was going to be received, but I didn’t change my message either. If they liked my message, great.”
Nevada Gov. Sandoval echoed a theme long embraced by Bush and reminded the activists that their focus has to be “all about education.”
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.