ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A conservative Republican group brought its fight for Hispanic votes to New Mexico on Friday, opening a two-day conference in the presidential battleground state that is home to one of the parties rising Hispanic stars — Gov. Susana Martinez.
Former Sen. Norm Coleman, chairman of the American Action Network, called Martinez the poster child for his effort to make the GOP more inclusive for the minority group that he says shares the party's basic values of strong family, strong education and jobs.
"Hispanic Americans are centrist-right, they just don't always act that way in the voting booth," Coleman said.
More than 400 people were registered for the conference that featured a speech by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and video remarks by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Martinez spoke of how she won over Democratic voters after she switched parties while she was Dona Ana County district attorney.
"How do you get Democrats to vote for you?" she said. "You have to have sincere conversations. Then you have to deliver on what you promised."
Panel discussions centered on education and job creation as well as the importance of the Hispanic vote in the upcoming elections and effective advocacy.
New Mexico Democrats held a conference call Thursday to blast the Republicans as hypocrites in their effort to lure traditionally Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters, saying GOP actions on issues important to Latinos speak louder than their rhetoric.
New Mexico Democratic Party Chairman Javier Gonzales said the Republicans "do these fly-ins, dog and pony shows, then go back to policies that ... are contrary to New Mexicans."
But Coleman, along with Hispanic Leadership Network executive director Jennifer Korn and Fred Malek, founder of the American Action Network that is behind HLN, defended their efforts, saying formation of the group marked a long-term commitment that will be around long after next year's presidential elections. Its inaugural conference was held in January in Miami.
"They're just nervous because we are fighting for the Hispanic vote," Korn said of critics.
And it will be a hard fight, panelists said.
Republican pollster Dan Judy of the Washington, D.C.- based Ayres, McHenry Associates said his research shows the Republican Party has significant problems with Hispanic voters — the country's fastest growing minority group that now numbers about 50 million.
Judy said the GOP should focus on making progress, not trying to win states like New Mexico outright. In the previous election, for example, presidential candidate and Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain took only 30 percent of the state's Hispanic vote, he said.
"We don't need to get to 50 percent plus one," Judy said. "We just need to get in the game."
In video remarks, Bush pointed to Martinez and Sandoval as examples of how the party can reach beyond traditional party-line rhetoric to connect with Hispanic voters.
"Hispanics are looking for leadership and solutions," he said.
To gain Hispanic support, Bush said the party must make the community feel welcome and include it in discussions as party leaders work to build policy.
Martinez, who spoke to a dinner on an outside terrace, was heckled afterward by a group of about 40 students opposed to her attempts to repeal a law that allows illegal immigrants to get New Mexico drivers licenses.
"Stop the hate" and "This is what New Mexico looks like" the crowd chanted before putting their drivers licenses in a box and offering them back to her.
A table near the fence that separated the protesters from the dinner stood up chanting "USA."
Hispanic Republicans came from around the Southwest to participate in the conference.
Jerry Natividad, president and CEO of American Facility Services Group in Lakewood, Co., said he came to Albuquerque to "network with like-minded Hispanics, discuss issues, share thoughts and most important, become very, very focused as a community on the upcoming presidential election."
Greg Vera, an El Paso resident who is retired from the military and federal bureau of prisons, said he wants to make sure the party focuses on military benefits. Albuquerque educator Amy Sanchez said she wanted to get involved because "the whole education system has degraded really fast ... and that is scary to me."
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