ALBUQUERQUE, NM — New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Florida Sen. Marc Rubio are popular, relative political newcomers in presidential battleground states. The rising GOP stars are also Hispanics, something the Republican Party makes no secret of hoping to capitalize on in the upcoming national elections.
National Republicans are inviting them on international fact finding trips, courting them for high-profile public appearances and whispering their names as possibilities for vice presidential nominations.
"They represent the American Dream," said Fred Malek, founder of the conservative American Action Network and its spinoff, the Hispanic Leadership Network, whose mission is to bring Hispanics into the party. "They represent what America is all about how to succeed. How to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, reach success and show leadership. They all share that."
But wooing the Hispanic vote takes more than floating candidates with Latino names, as was obvious last month when the Hispanic Leadership Network held a conference here. Martinez, after delivering the keynote dinner speech, was heckled by a group of some 50 young Latinos upset by her aggressive attempts to repeal a law that lets illegal immigrants get state driver's licenses.
"Stop the Hate," the protesters yelled while a table of conference attendees stood up and began chanting "USA, USA."
The scene underscores the complexities both political parties face as they set their sights on the nation's biggest and fastest growing but traditionally Democratic-leaning minority group — which is as diverse as Martinez, Sandoval and Rubio and the swing states they represent. Rubio is the son of Cuban exiles, a group that tends to have widely different views on immigration than Mexican-Americans in the Southwest and border-state Hispanics who trace their roots to early Spanish settlers.
"It's just as dangerous to stereotype a Latino or a Latina voter as it is to assume that all white voters think and act the same way," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who now teaches at University of Southern California.
While having a Hispanic on a Republican ballot will never sway hard core Democrats and many traditionally liberal leaning groups, Schnur says it may cause some voters to give the GOP a second look.
And the Republican Party sees an opportunity to lure more moderate and conservative Hispanics with pro-family, pro-jobs, strong work ethic themes that appeal to immigrants.
"Here is the new frontier of immigrants," Malek said. "The people who came to this country for the same reason my grandparents came to this country at the turn of the last century -- to make their way and build their future."
Martinez is the granddaughter of illegal Mexican immigrants and a long-time southern New Mexico prosecutor who has alienated immigrant rights groups with her stance on the driver's license issue. She represents a state that is nearly 50 percent Hispanic, and one that tends to be more tolerant of Mexican immigrants — legal or illegal — than neighbors like Arizona. And while Martinez is the nation's first Latina governor, Hispanic politicians are far from a novelty here.
Sandoval, a former state attorney general and federal judge who took office the same time as Martinez, has focused less on his heritage and has largely avoided hot-button issues like immigration. He has also been more welcoming of the national spotlight.
He traveled at the invitation of the Pentagon to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, and met with governors in Utah, California, Tennessee and Kentucky to discuss foreign, environmental and economic policy.
Sandoval will be introduced to conservative voters outside Nevada next week when he'll help open a GOP presidential debate and political summit in Las Vegas.
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