MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
And now we turn to President Obama's efforts to court a constituency that will also be important in next year's presidential campaign. Virtually anytime the president has spoken in public this month it has been to talk about the debt ceiling. Today, he shifts his focus, at least for an hour, to address the National Council of La Raza. It's the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the country. And today's is just the latest White House event to reach out to the Hispanic community. NPR's Ari Shapiro has our report.
ARI SHAPIRO: President Obama has staged an intense campaign to win the hearts and minds of Latinos. In the White House, he has met with Hispanic celebrities, activists and policy groups for summits, lunches and parties. Outside of the White House, the president made history last month.
BARACK OBAMA: Buenos tardes.
SHAPIRO: He was the first sitting president since John F. Kennedy to make an official visit to Puerto Rico.
OBAMA: Ah, it is good to be back in Puerto Rico.
SHAPIRO: The month before that, the president delivered what was billed as a major immigration speech on the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy proposals were not dramatically new, but this attack on Republicans for blocking comprehensive immigration reform was.
OBAMA: You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Now they're going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol, or they'll want a higher fence. Maybe they'll need a moat.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OBAMA: Maybe they want alligators in the moat.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHAPIRO: Now he's going to address the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the country. Janet Murguia is president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.
JANET MURGUIA: It was at our annual conference, at NCLR, when he was a candidate that he did make a promise that comprehensive immigration reform would be an absolute top priority. And I think it's been disappointing for many of us in the Latino community.
SHAPIRO: When President Obama speaks to women's groups, or to gay and lesbian audiences, he can point to a list of things his administration has accomplished for those communities. He can tell Latino groups that he appointed the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. But beyond that, there's a long list of unfinished business.
Republicans see an opportunity to make inroads into the fastest-growing minority group in the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CROSSROADS GPS POLITICAL AD)
Unidentified Woman: (Spanish language spoken)
SHAPIRO: The conservative group Crossroads GPS spent more than $150,000 on this Spanish language TV ad. It shows a woman lying awake at night, worried about the economy - which it turns out, is a top concern for Hispanic voters as well.
MARK HUGO: In many respects, Hispanics have been hit harder in the job market than some other groups during this recession.
SHAPIRO: Mark Hugo-Lopez is with the Pew Hispanic Center.
HUGO: There are now Hispanics in virtually every part of the country. And some of the fastest growth in Hispanic populations occurred in the southeast, places like Alabama or South Carolina; or Georgia, which saw its Hispanic population double during the last decade.
SHAPIRO: Those states traditionally vote Republican. But Mario Lopez of the Hispanic Leadership Fund fears they might not stay that way, unless fellow conservatives do some serious Latino outreach.
MARIO LOPEZ: Some of us who've been involved in the center right movement for a long time, as I have, have been sounding that alarm for a really long time. And from time to time, people perk up and pretend like they're listening and we certainly hope it's for real this time.
SHAPIRO: But Janet Murguia of La Raza does not see Republicans really trying to make inroads. She says she invited several Republican presidential candidates to speak at today's conference, and none accepted.
MURGUIA: I feel like they're missing an incredible opportunity to engage and to court a growing section of the electorate. And I'm hoping that we'll see an enlightened candidate make an effort.
SHAPIRO: And demographer William Frey, of the Brookings Institution, says the Hispanic population is younger than other groups in the U.S. In 2008, only 42 percent of Hispanics were eligible to vote.
WILLIAM FREY: That percentage is going to go up over time as more of these U.S.-born Hispanic kids become voters. We'll see some of it in 2012. But certainly by 2016 that young Hispanic vote will be crucial in ever bigger parts of the United States.
SHAPIRO: Republicans and Democrats both have high hopes for Latinos in the next election. Even as Republicans try to make inroads, the Obama re-election campaign says it hopes to win an even higher percentage of Latino voters, than Obama did in his first presidential campaign.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
LOUISE KELLY: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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