GOP Candidates Court Hispanic Voters

Republican candidates' efforts to win Hispanic voters have intensified in advance of the Florida primary, airing ads in Spanish and contending over immigration. Host Scott Simon speaks with Maria Elena Salinas, co-host of Noticiero Univision, about Hispanic voters' role in the Republican primary and the upcoming presidential election.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We've been hearing about Republican candidates' efforts to win over Hispanic voters. Those efforts have intensified in recent days with ads in Spanish and contention over immigration, like at Thursday night's debate in Jacksonville.

NEWT GINGRICH: We as a nation are not going to walk into some family - and by the way, they're going to end up in a church which will declare them a sanctuary - we're not going to walk in there and grandmother out and then kick them out.

MITT ROMNEY: Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive.

SIMON: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. After Tuesday's primary in Florida, the campaigns will head west to Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, states with a lot of Hispanic voters. To try and get a sense of what issues might interest Latino voters over the next few months, we're joined now by Maria Elena Salinas. She's a co-anchor of the news at Univision, and joins us from their studios in Miami. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARIA ELENA SALINAS: It's my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Let me ask first up, is Florida by virtue of its size and demographics just different from other states with a lot of Latino voters?

SALINAS: It definitely is. I would say that it is the - particularly the only state where you have a very large group of Republicans that are Hispanic here, although that has changed. At least six years ago in 2006 there were more Hispanic registered Republicans in Florida than now. Now you have at least 100,000 more Hispanics registered as Democrats, but it definitely is important. There's 13 percent of the electorate is Hispanic in this state, and it's very important to the candidates.

That's why you see them now changing their tone a little while ago. I just heard what you aired, and it's funny because just a few weeks ago it seemed like the Republican candidates were trying to outdo each other to see which one was more anti-immigrant. Now they're going the other way and saying which one is less anti-immigrant.

SIMON: Well, help us understand where immigration figures in the concerns of a lot of Hispanic voters, immigration weighed along with unemployment and other issues.

SALINAS: Exactly. Well, you know, there was a Univision ABC Latino Decisions poll that just came out last week, and it seems like that number one issue for Latinos right now is pretty much the same one as it is for the rest of the country, which is the economy and jobs. And second, is immigration. Immigration is an issue that moves the Latino voters. It's important to them. Of course, Hispanic voters do not have an immigration problem; they're citizens. However, either they've had it in the past or they know someone that has had an immigration problem. And also, the very negative debate on immigration spills over and affects all Latinos, not only undocumented immigrants.

SIMON: Well, that'll bring in the interview you had this week with President Obama. It was about a number of issues. But you asked the president about the record number of deportations of illegal immigrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPED INTERVIEW)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ...enforcement.

SALINAS: But why the deportations, why is it necessary?

OBAMA: But, but - well, because that's the law that's on the books right now, and the way our system works, the president doesn't have the authority to simply ignore Congress and say, we're not going to enforce the laws that you passed.

SIMON: Do you have any indication, Maria Elena, how the president's answer went over with a lot of your viewers and the people polled?

SALINAS: Well, unfortunately, it didn't go over very well. I think that people are tired of hearing the president say, you know, blame it on the Republicans. Even if it's true, I think people want to hear something else. They want to see the president roll up his sleeves and fight for immigration reform the same way he fought for health reform. So I think there's a little bit of disappointment.

SIMON: How do you foresee maybe some of the campaign issues or even positions changing a bit as the campaign moves on, moves west into Nevada, Colorado, Arizona?

SALINAS: Well, from here in Florida, of course, you have a little bit of a conservative vote, as far as Hispanics are concerned. But in the rest of the country, I think that's different. You have a very high percentage of Latinos that are Democrats. So the Republican Hispanic vote in these states is very small. I don't think it's going to make that much of a difference in the primaries. It will definitely make a big difference when it comes to the general election. So in states like Nevada like, you know, Colorado, like Arizona, those states I think in the general election will have a much higher impact than they will in the Republican primaries.

SIMON: Maria Elena Salinas is a co-host at Univision, joined us from there studios there in Miami. Thanks so much for being with us.

SALINAS: It was pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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