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We're going to hear now about a Republican push to get more of the Hispanic vote. Those voters have heavily favored Democratic candidates in most recent elections. One exception was President George W. Bush, who was seen as a friend to Hispanics and did relatively well with those voters. Today his brother is among the Republican leaders launching a new effort in Miami to reach out to this fastest-growing group in America.
NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON: Hispanic Republican candidates had some big successes in November. Marco Rubio was elected to the Senate in Florida. Brian Sandoval and Susanna Martinez won the governorships of Nevada and New Mexico. But Republicans overall still lost the Hispanic vote nationwide by about 2-1, not much different from the results in 2008. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush wants to change that.
JEB BUSH: The challenge, though, is that we have a situation right now where Republicans send out signals that Hispanics aren't wanted in our party, not by policy so much as by tone.
LIASSON: But it's more than just the tone. It's one issue in particular. Alfonso Aguilar is the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and a participant in today's conference.
ALFONSO AGUILAR: Latinos are inherently conservative. They're socially conservative, they are entrepreneurial. They're pro-business. Immigration is that one issue that prevents us from winning the support of Latino voters.
LIASSON: The last attempt at immigration reform in Congress - a bill that would've allowed young people brought here illegally as children to become citizens if they enrolled in college or the military - got only eight Republican votes in the House and three in the Senate. Immigration activist Frank Sharry says that shows how much has changed since George W. Bush tried to pass a law that would've provided a path to legalization for undocumented workers.
FRANK SHARRY: Republicans have lurched to the right since Jeb Bush's brother made a heroic attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform back in 2007. Clearly there's a tremendous fear among Republicans that primary challenges will result from being centrist on immigration. It's cost them with the fastest-growing group of new voters in the country - Latinos - for whom immigration has become a defining issue.
LIASSON: Even though anti-immigrant voices seem to getting louder inside the GOP, Jeb Bush is convinced they do not speak for most on the right.
BUSH: That view is in the minority, even in the Republican Party. But I think if you got to the point where legitimate emotional concerns about the lack of border security and the lack of rule of law, once those issues subsided, then you would find a great majority of people that would support some solution to the large number of people that are here illegally.
LIASSON: Bush isn't the only one trying to solve this problem. Newt Gingrich, a potential presidential candidate and a thought leader inside the party, talks about creating a zone between amnesty and mass deportation. Columnist Ruben Navarrette, who's also speaking at the conference in Miami, says there is a new conversation going on beneath the surface in the GOP, particularly when it comes to the push by some Republicans to repeal the 14th Amendment in order to deny birthright citizenship to children born to undocumented parents.
RUBEN NAVARRETTE: They're not fools. They realize that there are those places where they can overplay their hand. And I think the 14th Amendment change is a perfect example of a bridge too far. It's poison. You play with that and I am never ever going to be able to go before a group of Hispanic women, OK, mothers - madres and tias - and convince them that the Republican Party isn't anything but a bunch of ogres.
LIASSON: Another small but encouraging sign to Alfonso Aguilar is the decision to deny Iowa Congressman Steve King the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee. King is one of the party's most strident voices on the issue.
AGUILAR: To me the message is, Steve King, you're too loud and you're saying things that are very offensive. We don't want to see that. That's a very good first step: reject the ugly rhetoric. The question now is, can Republicans propose the immigration solutions that go beyond enforcement only? And if we do, Hispanics will respond very favorably.
LIASSON: If Republicans can't go beyond enforcement only, says Ruben Navarrettte, the GOP is doomed as a national party.
NAVARRETTE: Demographics do not lie. They will never again elect a Republican president if they don't get this right in short order, because Hispanics are increasing in population at a rate where they're going to wipe away everything else.
LIASSON: Hispanics are expected to reach 30 percent of the population by 2050. And speaking of Republican presidents, Frank Sharry points out that only one potential GOP candidate - former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty - is attending the conference in Miami this week.
SHARRY: Republicans are flummoxed on how to talk about this issue in a way that doesn't incite the base against them and that reaches out to Latinos and says I get you. The only person in the Republican Party who did that successfully was George W. Bush. And he won that coveted threshold of 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 that powered his way to reelection.
LIASSON: And that is the cold hard math of the GOP's problem. In 2012, they need to find a way to win more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, and not just in Florida, but in other swing states like Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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