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.
"I want to lead by example and show the people of the party that it's important to me as well as to the state to elect Republican candidates," Sandoval told The Associated Press.
But when it comes to Hispanics, Marco Rauda, a Hispanic Democratic organizer in Las Vegas, said many Latinos in Nevada don't know what to make of Sandoval. He hasn't appointed Hispanics to his administration in notable numbers and his interactions with the community have largely been limited to formal galas and luncheons with Hispanic businessmen.
Rubio, 40, became the youngest Floridian to serve as State House Speaker in 1996. He speaks rapidly and without notes, easily bringing tears to his audiences' eyes with recollections of his immigrant parents' struggles and his appreciation for the country that took them in.
"My dad was 30-something when he came to this country and had to start his life brand new. So my generation in many ways inherited a lot of dreams and hopes," he has said.
Rubio says he is not interested in the vice presidential nomination, though his name topped Michigan's straw poll last month for the post. Fueling further speculation about his ambitions are the numerous Rubio staffers — including his chief of staff and communications director — who worked for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign
Despite his roots, he has largely dodged taking a public stand on tough immigration issues, refusing recently to be interviewed about immigration by the nation's largest Spanish-language network, Univision, whose audience tends to strongly support immigration reform,
While Republicans are frank about their hope these three can bring more Hispanics into the GOP fold, the real benefits go way beyond the upcoming presidential elections, Schnur said
Democrats are skeptical that Latino voters will be swayed.
"Latinos do not vote surnames," Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said, noting that neither Martinez nor Sandoval won the majority Hispanic vote in their own states. "They vote according to policies and they know very well that Sandoval, Martinez and Rubio do not represent the best interests of the overall Latino population in terms of giving them the tools to prosper in this tough economy."
Associated Press writers Cristina Silva in Las Vegas and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.