The courtship of the Hispanic vote has reached new intensity in the presidential campaign, with both President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney dutifully addressing the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in the last few days.
Mr. Romney, who arrived first, had the larger challenge, having embraced the tough anti-immigration law in Arizona during the Republican primaries. Mr. Obama then came in riding a strong tailwind of past Hispanic support, recently accelerated by his executive order halting the deportation of children of illegal aliens brought to this country. It also temporarily gives them the right to work and attend school here as long as they have no criminal record.
Mr. Romney said that, as president, he would replace the Obama order with "my own long-term solution," without specifying what it would entail. He promised only to address the problems of immigration in a "civil and resolute manner" and spent much of his speech arguing that Mr. Obama's plan was no more than a transparent bid for the Latino vote. "He will imply that you don't really have an alternative," Mr. Romney said. "I believe he's taking your vote for granted. I come here today with a simple message: You do have an alternative."
But Mr. Romney's pitch was contradictory. By citing the new Obama leniency toward young alien children, he was providing evidence that the president was hardly taking the Hispanic community for granted. Mr. Obama justified his action as "the right thing to do," but it also was timed for maximum political support from the 50 million Latinos in this country.
President Obama made little reference to Mr. Romney in his speech, other than to note his opponent earlier said he would veto the Dream Act on immigration reform, which has been stalled by Republicans in Congress. "We should take him at his word," the president said, to standing applause.
Before Mr. Obama's latest directive, Mr. Romney already had a high hill to climb trying to cut into the president's wide advantage among Hispanics in America. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll, of the Latinos surveyed, 68 percent supported Mr. Obama to only 30 percent for Mr. Romney. It's roughly the same margin of support as Mr. Obama enjoyed in 2008 against Republican nominee John McCain.
A rather ludicrous indication of Mr. Romney's concern not to offend Hispanic voters came last week. Some news organizations reported that his campaign had not seriously vetted Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the American-born son of Cuban immigrants, for possible consideration as his running mate. So Mr. Romney himself quickly responded that his campaign was indeed examining Senator Rubio's record and background among other possible choices.
The 41-year-old Mr. Rubio, as an articulate favorite of the tea party movement, has repeatedly been mentioned as a leading prospect. A freshman senator whose highest previous legislative role was as speaker of the Florida House, he has little foreign policy experience, a factor considered likely to work against his selection.
The Romney campaign objective with Hispanic voters is a modest one: merely to cut into the Obama lead among them rather than win it. For all the speculation about Mr. Rubio as a Romney running mate, there is little historic evidence that the selection materially affects the outcome of a presidential election. The last time such a choice was regarded as a serious factor was more than half a century ago, when John F. Kennedypicked Lyndon Johnson, whose energetic campaigning in the South was credited with helping the ticket there.
The chances are that Mr. Romney is barking up the wrong tree in seeking enough Hispanic votes to swing the election his way in November. His political leeway to court the Latino constituency is limited by his still shaky if growing support among Republican conservatives firmly opposed to any loosening of immigration barriers.
Even as Mr. Romney was telling the Latino convention essentially to wait and see what he will do on immigration as president, the Obama campaign was airing a new video showing him dodging reporters' questions for specifics. That's hardly the way to make inroads with the one voting bloc that could be Mr. Romney's biggest barrier to election in November.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.