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Can Romney connect with Latino voters?

By Ana Navarro, CNN Contributor
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Mon September 17, 2012
Mitt Romney and Hector Barreto Jr., chairman of the Latino Coalition, greet guests at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington in May.
Mitt Romney and Hector Barreto Jr., chairman of the Latino Coalition, greet guests at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington in May.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ana Navarro: Romney is furiously wooing Latino voters now. Some advice: Connect!
  • She says at events, he fails to acknowledge Latinos' concerns, but he must for support
  • She says Romney seems allied with immigration hardliners such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio
  • Navarro: Obama's let down Latinos significantly; both candidates must convince them

Editor's note: Ana Navarro, Republican strategist and commentator, served as national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.

(CNN) -- A few weeks ago, I said Mitt Romney's Hispanic outreach was not visible to the naked eye. I try to call 'em as I see 'em, even when it means criticism of my own party.

Today, I see a Romney Hispanic blitz. Latino-Palooza is underway. Hispanic volunteers are holding events, making phone calls, knocking on doors. Romney began to spend significant resources on Spanish TV ads in swing states with a sizable Hispanic population. He's doing an interview with Telemundo, speaking to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and participating in a Univision Candidate Forum, all this week.

My unsolicited advice to Romney: CONNECT! For the love of God, Mitt, acknowledge you are in front of Latinos. It's OK to talk to different communities about specific issues that affect them more than others. If done correctly and with sincerity, it is called speaking to your audience. If it strikes an inauthentic note, it's pandering.

Ana Navarro
Ana Navarro

Earlier this year, Romney spoke to the Latino Coalition. He mentioned "Latino" twice, once while thanking his hosts. Recently, he spoke at an event in Miami, Florida. You may have thought it was taking place in Miami, Ohio. He made no comments specifically targeted to the thousands of Hispanics braving the heat and humidity to hear him. Romney never mentioned foreign policy toward Latin America, not even Cuba. How someone fails to do that in the heart of Cuban-American Miami is puzzling.

Barack Obama, for his part, has been working the Latino community. In the past six months, it's reached a fever pitch. The Democrat National Convention was a parade of Latinos: elected officials, celebrities, singers, students and even an undocumented young woman, representing the Dreamer students who would qualify for legal status under a potential Dream Act.

Obama knows winning the Latino vote is key. Just as crucial as the margin of victory is the level of turnout. Obama's task is to maintain his current numbers of 65% to 68% support and increase voter enthusiasm. Romney must chip away at Obama's lead. He will have a difficult time winning the election with his Hispanic poll numbers hovering around 30%.

Hispanic events provide an opportunity to ask tough questions. Romney and Obama have some explaining to do.

Like many other voters, Hispanics want to hear more specifics from Romney and Obama. Whether its economic policy or foreign policy, they would like the candidates to get past lofty platitudes. Many Hispanics live in Florida, Nevada and Arizona, which have been disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis. They want to know how they are going to get out of houses that are underwater and mortgages that are overwhelming.

Hispanic unemployment has run significantly higher than the national average (now 8.1%) during the Obama administration. It is still high at 10.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On education, Hispanic dropout rates continue to be higher than the national average. Last year, it was estimated by one study to be as high as 28%. These are real problems that require real solutions. We want to hear concrete steps towards opportunity.

Then there is immigration. Note to Romney: Take a deep breath. Close your eyes and jump! You must address this issue. Continuing to avoid it turns it into an albatross around your neck.

Romney needs to move beyond his positions during the primary. He promised to veto the Dream Act. He should then tell us if and how he plans to confront the predicament these young people face. Proposing to staple a green card to the diploma of foreign students graduating from U.S. universities does not cut it.

While he's at it, he should say what he plans to do about the administrative order issued by the Obama administration that provides Dreamers temporary status for two years. If he becomes president, will he revoke it or will he let the order stand for at least the initial two-year period? A simple yes or no will suffice.

There also needs to be a responsible plan to deal with securing our borders and enforcing our immigration laws but also providing a practical and humane solution for the 11 million undocumented people already here. Unless it's meant as a lame attempt at humor, "self-deportation" is not an adequate response.

Talking of self-deportation, there's a question as to whether Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who advocates the concept and is credited as the architect of Arizona's controversial SB1070 law, is an adviser or a supporter to Romney. Which is it? Romney has not publicly embraced Dreamers, but he's had no difficulty embracing the guys who give us nightmares, such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa and Kobach. How should Hispanics feel about that and what role, if any, would any of them play in a Romney administration?

Obama has his share of explanations to give. Many Latinos have felt great economic pain during his administration. Some of us, who don't think we should give one inch to anti-democratic regimes in Latin American, did not like seeing Obama in a discussion of missile defense, tap then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the knee and promise more flexibility in a second term. What does that mean vis-a-vis the likes of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez?

In 2008, Obama promised Hispanics he would pass comprehensive immigration reform. He had a majority in the House and Senate and a powerful mandate for his first two years, and he failed to so much as present a plan, much less push for its passage. Blaming Republicans for his broken promise is silly. He passed his other priorities, including health care reform and the stimulus package, with practically no Republican support.

Those first two years, where Obama showed will, he found a way. He chose not to make immigration a priority. Why should we believe him now?

How does he plan to pass any meaningful reform in his second term when 1) he will be a lame duck from day one; and 2) he will in all likelihood have a Republican-controlled House and very divided Senate? Obama has not been known to cultivate congressional allies, Democrat or Republicans. Passing controversial legislation will not be easy.

Four years ago, Obama chanted, "Si, se puede!" (Yes, we can!) He's grown older and grayer; so have we. He couldn't and didn't in his first term. He'd be well-served to acknowledge that and take some responsibility, instead of just laying the blame elsewhere.

Hispanics are disappointed in Obama and distrustful of Romney. Both of them have seven weeks to change that. The clock is ticking.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ana Navarro

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