MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Barack Obama won Nevada when he won the presidency, so did George W. Bush and, before him, Bill Clinton, which is to say Nevada is a swing state. And when Democrats win it, it's with the strong support of Latinos who account for 17 percent of the state's voters. Recent polls have shown that while most Latinos still support the president's re-election, that support is waning. Our co-host Robert Siegel is in Las Vegas this week, and he reports that Republicans there see an opening, but it's one they're finding hard to exploit.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In the parking lot of the Mariana's Supermarket on the east side of Las Vegas, most of the shoppers speak Spanish. Mariana's is a local chain, founded by Mexican immigrants a couple of decades ago. It bills itself as the Hispanic supermarket for Las Vegas. It's in a working-class neighborhood where Barack Obama did very well with Latino voters in 2008. According to the polls, most of them, like Manuel Ruedo, who works as a bagger at Mariana's, supported Mr. Obama then and support him now.
MANUEL RUEDO: I think he's doing a good job. The way I see it, it's not like he can just go there and do whatever he wants, right? He tries.
SIEGEL: But some, like Sandy Chan, who was loading her shopping bags and her grade-school-age daughter into the SUV, voted for Barack Obama last time, but say not this time.
SANDY CHAN: Oh, he made a lot of promises, and he didn't accomplish them. That's how we think about him. The economy was going to go up. A lot of Hispanic people were going to be able to get a job. But that didn't happen.
SIEGEL: And some are undecided, like Richard Munoz, the shopping center security guard in a golf cart who moved here from California where he used to be a cook. He regrets his vote in 2008.
RICHARD MUNOZ: I voted for the wrong guy. He's in office, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MUNOZ: If he can maybe do something different, show that he's willing to change the economy, instead of stuff that's going on overseas that really - what are we benefiting from that?
SIEGEL: Mr. Munoz expressed puzzlement at why we're sending military advisers to Uganda, for example. It's not as if President Obama and the Democrats have no cards to play for Latino votes in Nevada. Most Latinos here are working class. More are registered Democrats than Republicans. Latinos account for almost half of the 55,000-member Culinary Workers Union. They work at the hotels and casinos that are the heart of the economy of southern Nevada. The president of the Culinary Workers local, Nicaraguan-born Geoconda Arguello-Kline, endorsed Barack Obama early in the 2008 cycle, and she and the union are still very much with him. As for that notable loss of enthusiasm among Nevada Latinos, she says they'll come around.
GEOCONDA ARGUELLO-KLINE: The people, they have to see the facts. And the facts, it is, the country went through a lot before we had...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ARGUELLO-KLINE: ...the President Barack Obama. We already had a big, tough situation where we knew we're going to go through a recession. We can't blame one person about what's been happening for many, many years here because that was a crutch.
SIEGEL: But saying you can't blame the president is different from saying I'm excited about what the president has done about the economy in the past couple of years. One is defensive and saying we shouldn't be so hard on him. And the other would be saying I'm - I support him. I think he's great. I think he's doing a terrific job. I hear two different things there.
ARGUELLO-KLINE: You know, the economy is not back yet. But at the same time, people realize inside them, when you heard about attacking the middle class? Whoa, what's this?
SIEGEL: By attacks on the middle class, Arguello-Kline means cuts that are affecting firefighters and schoolteachers. She says Republican support of such cuts will alienate her union membership. But the palpable disappointment of Latinos with the Obama administration over unemployment that's still over 13 percent in this state, over the worst foreclosure rate in the country and over the lack of immigration reform, that disappointment has local Republicans energized, but it also has them frustrated.
The Republican presidential candidates debated in Las Vegas last week at the Western Republican Leadership Conference. And a local businessman named Robert Zavala posed this question.
ROBERT ZAVALA: We have 50 million Latinos, and not all of us are illegal. What is the message from you guys to our Latino community?
ANDERSON COOPER: Speaker Gingrich?
SIEGEL: The answers included Newt Gingrich's promise of a growing economy, Ron Paul's plea not to think about people in groups, and Rick Santorum's appeal to values of faith and family. Rick Perry defended the 14th Amendment's grant of citizenship to babies born here, despite their parents' status. And Michele Bachmann called for legislation governing so-called anchor babies.
Before the debate was done, Mitt Romney had charged Rick Perry with creating many new jobs in Texas for illegal immigrants and rebutted Perry's charge that he had hired illegal immigrants in Massachusetts. A few days later, Robert Zavala, the man who had asked about the party's message to Latinos, was frustrated with what he'd heard at that debate.
ZAVALA: I'm still waiting for the answer. Our party has not realized how to reach the Latino community. That message doesn't exist.
SIEGEL: There's a message I hear every election year. It was from Senator Santorum in this case in the debate, which is Latinos are natural Republican voters because they're high on family and faith and conservative social values. Is that a message?
ZAVALA: That is a message. You know, in 1979, for example, President Ronald Reagan stated Latinos are Republicans. They just don't know it yet. And as a party, we need to understand that there's something that unites us with the values of the Republican Party to the Latino community.
SIEGEL: Here's another Republican message to Latinos: a Spanish language commercial from the conservative group Crossroads GPS, which is associated with Karl Rove.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "DESPERTARSE")
SIEGEL: It is called "Despertarse." It's the translation of a commercial called "Wake Up." A woman rises from a troubled sleep. She's a single mother of two, and she's worried. It's just past 3 o'clock in the morning. The time it was in Hillary Clinton's 2008 commercial that questioned Barack Obama's readiness to handle a crisis. But now, what's troubling the Latina in the commercial is the economy. She says she voted for Barack Obama, but now, she sees the economy getting worse.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "DESPERTARSE")
SIEGEL: We asked a group of conservative Latinos who are active in Republican politics in Nevada to sit down and talk about their community and their party. And while they spoke of strong connections over abortion, over the failure to get unemployment down, immigration figured on everyone's mind, and they were frustrated with the way the Republican presidential candidates have discussed that issue. We'll hear from Rene Cantu Jr., who runs the Latin Chamber of Commerce Foundation. He's a former academic, born in Laredo, Texas, to a Mexican-American family.
Peter Guzman is a real estate broker. He's of Cuban descent. James Campos is a former state commissioner of consumer affairs, who's been active in Republican politics. He was born in Paraguay. Jose Hernandez is an accountant, a former developer. He was born in Colombia. Teresa Ramirez was born in Mexico. She owns a beauty salon. And we'll hear first from Tibi Ellis, who's a Venezuela-born evangelical Christian who owns a small business, and she says many Latinos have an interest in small business.
TIBI ELLIS: A lot of us are business owners, and we understand the importance of prosperity in our businesses and how small regulation and small government benefits our businesses in that way to allow us to grow. So we try to resonate those messages that are consistent with the platform of the party to the Latino community, but in the results of elections, I think we come short on that.
SIEGEL: James Campos, you've been working in political campaigns. Is that the message, and does the GOP keep coming short of that?
JAMES CAMPOS: I think it's a work in progress that there's a lot of things that we'd like to see happen during each cycle, but needless to say, there still needs to be a more aggressive style of a grassroots campaign.
SIEGEL: Peter Guzman?
PETER GUZMAN: First and foremost, Hispanics, by and large, are conservatives. When it comes to abortion, family values, marriage, all of those things, they're very conservative. I think where the Democratic Party has done a better job than the GOP, the Republicans, is in two areas. Number one, with the youth, the Democrats have more of an outreach to youth, so I hate to use the word brainwash, but they're talking to them earlier on. And secondly, Democrats reach out to Hispanics that get here from, let's say, Mexico. They get to those people first.
SIEGEL: Rene Cantu?
RENE CANTU: There's been a great sense of disconnect, I think, between Latinos and both parties. On the Republican side, I would like to see an embrace of Hispanics and a move away from the charged rhetoric. I think that Romney will have a very difficult time if he is selected as the nominee because of some of the comments he has made.
SIEGEL: Jose Hernandez?
JOSE HERNANDEZ: What's happened to the Republican Party is that we've kind of fallen into a trap talking about immigration as though immigration is only about illegal immigration. This country was built on immigration and the Latino people that want to immigrate to this country want to immigrate for the same reasons that everybody else immigrated.
The problem that we have now and the difference between then and now is that, originally, immigrating here was a more reasonable process. Now, to get somebody immigrated from Mexico here, they got to fill out an application and wait 10 to 15 years.
SIEGEL: That's the legal course of action.
HERNANDEZ: That's the legal course.
SIEGEL: Sit there and wait.
HERNANDEZ: Exactly. That's almost a lifetime for people. So what happens is that the laws that are existing today and the way they're managing them are actually promoting illegal immigration.
SIEGEL: Rene Cantu, you wanted to comment on that.
CANTU: I wanted to say that I think there's a misunderstanding about how the Latino community, I think, in general, views the immigration question. We don't view it as a political question. We view it as a moral question. You know, I grew up on the Texas-Mexican border and I can tell you that the work ethic, the spirit, the values that the many immigrants undocumented and documented that I have met are exemplary.
SIEGEL: You make that case at a Republican candidate's debate and there might not be enough room on the stage for you to move, it would be so far left of what the candidates are saying about immigration to say that.
CANTU: Look at what happened when Rick Perry stood his ground on giving undocumented kids in-state tuition.
SIEGEL: In Texas.
CANTU: And he was lambasted. He went down in the polls and he stood his ground and I think, again, it's a moral, not a political question for many Latinos and there's a disconnect there.
SIEGEL: Teresa Ramirez, you actually were a Democrat until pretty recently.
TERESA RAMIREZ: Yes, I was. And I never liked Obama and I went for McCain and I work very hard, but I see - they don't care what party. They don't do nothing for the Spanish community and, you know, and I'm a little disappointed with both parties, so I'm in between both. Now, I hate both.
SIEGEL: That last sentiment expressed by Teresa Ramirez could prove just as good for the Republicans in Nevada next year as would winning a big share of the Latino vote. If Latinos are turned off and stay home, that alone could bring the state back into the red column.
James Campos, who worked on the McCain campaign here, figures the Republicans need 40 percent of the Latino vote in Nevada to win this state's valuable five electoral votes next November.
In Las Vegas, this is Robert Siegel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.