MIAMI — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told a Republican gathering Thursday evening that the time is now to connect better with Latino voters, not two months before the general election.
Bush is co-chairing a conference today of the new Hispanic Action Network, part of the GOP's latest efforts to forge ties with the growing number of Latino voters. The conference will focus on trade, immigration, media outreach and education.
"Typically what happens in politics is you're working hard and you say, 'Oh gosh, we better start working at campaigning in the Hispanic community,' and it's like Sept. 15," he told the crowd at the elegant Biltmore Hotel in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. "This is not about politics. This is about the conservative cause. If you look over the horizon over the next 10 or 20 years ... without an active involvement of Hispanics, we will not be the governing philosophy."
The Hispanic Action Network is backed by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, whose American Action Network funneled more than $30 million in campaign funds to Republicans in about 30 congressional races last year.
With the Latino population growing in swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and Florida, Republicans need to chip away at Hispanics' overall 2-1 preference for Democrats to have any hope of capturing the presidency.
Democrats are confident their party's efforts on health care, education and the economy will continue to appeal to Hispanic voters, whom they believe have been turned off by Republican campaign attacks on illegal immigrants.
But Bush and other Republicans have long maintained their party is a natural fit for Hispanics, particularly recent immigrants. They cite the party's social conservatism, anti-abortion stance and support for private school vouchers and lower taxes. Voters last year elected several Latino Republicans to prominent posts, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Bush's group is not the only conservative organization focusing on Hispanic outreach.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible 2012 presidential candidate, announced a similar effort in Washington, D.C., last month with his Americanos group. The conservative Heritage Foundation also now has a Spanish Web site, Libertad.org. Meanwhile, Alfonso Aguilar, former President George W. Bush's first citizenship and immigration czar, runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
The former president, who is Jeb Bush's brother, had a stronger and more successful Hispanic outreach program than almost any other national Republican.
Jeb Bush, who is fluent in Spanish and met his Mexican-born wife Columba when he taught English in her homeland, said reaching out "is about more than running ads in the Spanish-language media. It's also about showing people you want them to be part of the effort, putting in the time even when people aren't looking." And, Bush added, "it means using rhetoric that doesn't turn people off."
He told The Associated Press "the more the merrier" as far as outreach programs go. Unlike Gingrich, Bush has ruled out running for president in 2012.
Of next year's crop of likely GOP presidential contenders, only former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is scheduled to speak at the conference, where more than 600 are likely to attend.
But Republican groups have their work cut out for them following an election year in which Republican Senate candidate Sharon Angle of Nevada ran ads portraying illegal immigrants as thuggish gang members, and Hispanic voters overwhelmingly sided with Sen. Michael Bennet against Republican Ken Buck, a former county prosecutor who had tried to deport more illegal immigrants by seizing income-tax returns from accountants that catered to Spanish speakers. The plan was later thrown out by a court.
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