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How Romney can win over Latino voters

By Ana Navarro, Special to CNN
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Thu April 26, 2012
It won't be easy for Mitt Romney, here in January, to change course on stands he took in the primaries, says Ana Navarro.
It won't be easy for Mitt Romney, here in January, to change course on stands he took in the primaries, says Ana Navarro.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ana Navarro: Polls show Mitt Romney way behind Barack Obama among Latinos
  • She says Romney can't wipe slate clean, erase what he said in the primaries
  • She said he can pivot to show he understands the value of immigration
  • Navarro: Romney needs to address economic issues and court Hispanic voters

Editor's note: Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, served as national Hispanic co-chairwoman for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.

(CNN) -- Modern technology has made campaigning much easier in some ways. It's now possible to raise millions in small donations through the Internet, host Facebook town halls and galvanize millions of supporters through Twitter. An ad can be released on YouTube and attract enough media coverage to make it worthwhile without spending a dime on TV time.

Technology is also a double-edged sword that's made campaigning more complicated. A candidate's every word can now be captured by modern technology and live in e-perpetuity. There is no such thing as wiping the slate clean after the primary. Candidates should be read their Miranda Rights before beginning a campaign. Anything they say can and will be used against them.

How can Mitt Romney contend with some of the things he said during the primary campaign which will come back to haunt him in the general election? He needs to gracefully pivot. Nowhere is this more true than in his outreach efforts with Hispanics.

Ana Navarro
Ana Navarro

Romney cannot Hispander (blatant pandering to Hispanics, usually involving mariachi music and merciless butchering of the Spanish language). He cannot flip-flop on immigration (again). He's fought the flip-flopper label for years, and neither the right that still doesn't entirely trust him nor the left that is salivating to defeat him will let him get away with a drastic change of position.

Romney desperately needs to improve his numbers with Latinos. Polls show Romney trailing by as much as an unbelievable 50 percentage points behind President Obama with Hispanic voters. In 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain won 31% of the Latino vote. It cost him states like Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Unless Romney gets close to 40% of the Latino vote, he can kiss the White House goodbye.

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Polls also show that immigration is not the most important issue for Latinos. Like other Americans, we are most concerned about the economy. Still, immigration does set a tone. If Latinos perceive a candidate as anti-immigrant, it can turn them off, period.

So, what's Romney to do? He can't erase the things he's said on immigration. Despite his campaign's efforts, they can't make supporters (or an adviser) like Kris Kobach disappear, and he is as radioactive as Kryptonite in the Latino community.

However, all's not lost. From now until Election Day, when Romney gets asked an immigration question, he needs to start and finish by reminding Latinos that Obama promised, without caveats, to get immigration reform passed in his first year in office.

Navarrette: Why Marco Rubio can't save the GOP

For many Latinos, a person's word is sacred. Romney should unequivocally say that Obama broke his word and dramatically increased deportation rates, causing family separation. He should sound angry and indignant about it. Romney needs to go from playing defense to playing offense on immigration. Hispanics are disillusioned with Obama. He too is vulnerable on the issue but only if Romney exploits that weakness.

Romney has to remain staunchly anti-amnesty and pro-border security but at the same time sound sympathetic and understanding of the desperation of people who often risk their lives crossing a border so they can put food on their family's table. He needs to talk about the benefits of immigration and how the richness of our diversity has made us a stronger country.

If Romney can neutralize the immigration issue by moderating his tone, giving more nuanced answers and taking the offensive against Obama, then he can focus on other issues.

Hispanics are an aspirational people. We seek opportunities to provide a better life to our children. Romney should take every chance to remind Latinos that we have been disproportionately affected by the bad economy. As a group, Hispanics have suffered some of the highest unemployment, foreclosure and poverty rates. If Latinos are asked whether they are better off than four years ago, the answer is "No, seƱor."

Romney is also going to have to put the time and resources into Hispanic outreach. If he expects to make up the lost ground, Hispanics cannot be an afterthought.

His campaign needs to wake up and go to sleep every night thinking of the Latino vote. They'd be well served to embrace and deploy strong surrogates like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Raul Labrador. They speak the language not only literally but culturally. Latinos want to be courted.

Obama has accepted speaking invitations to the NALEO and La Raza conferences. Romney needs to do the same, pronto, and he needs to make it count by delivering memorable speeches.

Come Election Day, I don't know whether Romney is going to do better with Hispanics than the polls indicate or if Obama is going to do worse. Romney needs a lot of both to happen if he wants to move into la Casa Blanca.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ana Navarro.

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