The Republicans' Hispanic problem
- 31 January 2012
- From the section US & Canada
At the Centre for the Christian Family, a Hispanic evangelical church just outside Orlando, the reporters and cameramen outnumber the audience waiting for Newt Gingrich to turn up.
The former Speaker of the House of Representatives is well over half an hour late. Word spreads that because of the low turnout he will not give a speech, but instead meet and greet the small crowd.
When he does make a short address to the 75 or so people waiting, he does not trouble to utter a word in Spanish, though his promise to pursue statehood for Puerto Rico does raise a ragged cheer.
The Republicans have a Hispanic problem.
They know they need Latino votes. And they know that on many calculations - social and economic - they should get them. But Latinos, the fastest growing part of the US population, are not coming to the Republicans.
Much of the problem turns around the issue of immigration. US Hispanic voters are here legally, but many have friends or family who are in America illegally.
And socially conservative, evangelical Hispanics should be natural Republicans. But the tone of the debate is all wrong.
"The rhetoric has gotten more negative," says Peter Vivaldi, of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, who invited Mr Gingrich to the centre.
"While the economy is good everybody is happy, nothing's an issue. But when the economy is bad and the money is not there and the jobs aren't there, we're looking to point the finger one way or another in directions that I don't think are really fair.
This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, this is a moral issue."
Florida - where more than one in five people are of Hispanic origin - sees better numbers for the Republicans amongst Hispanics than in the rest of the US.
But the most recent Univision/Latino Decisions poll shows Barack Obama trouncing either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich among Hispanics across the US by huge margins. Such numbers are are trumpeted by the White House.
Mitt Romney's statement in a recent Republican debate that illegal immigrants should "self-deport" was greeted with a combination of mirth and anger.
Newt Gingrich's description of Spanish as the "language of living in the ghetto" may have been wilfully misinterpreted by his opponents, but it did him no favours amongst many Latinos.
But some Republican politicians get it.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush wrote recently in the Washington Post that "Hispanics respond to candidates that show respect and understanding for their experiences".
At a debate party organised by the Hispanic Leadership Network in Miami, I asked him whether he meant that as a rebuke to some in his party.
"No," he said. "Voters want respect, they want to be heard and if you just wander around the streets of Miami you see the immigrant experience as something extraordinarily wonderful, extraordinarily American, and just having that understanding is a show of respect."
It is difficult to remember the last time Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich described the Latino immigrant experience as "extraordinary", "wonderful" or "American".
That is not the rhetoric that many non-Hispanic Republicans believe in or want to hear.
There are, of course Hispanic Republicans, and they crowd into a debate party to watch the candidates make their pitches. Waiting for the debate to start, Ana Abaonza, an architect, has some advice for the presidential hopefuls.
"What they need to say is that they are going to address the specific problems that are tainting us - immigration, equality and putting us into parts of the government where we can have access to doing policy in the United States."
And what of Mitt Romney's suggestion about self-deportation?
"That is nonsense," she shoots back, "Self-deportation, I don't know how that can even be thought of."
One thing can be guaranteed. If - as seems likely - Mitt Romney is the Republican candidate, the Obama campaign will remind Hispanics in swing states of his comments about self-deportation, over and over again.
As Jeb Bush likes to point out, Hispanics can make the difference in 15 swing states come the presidential elections. The problem for the Republicans is that difference may put Barack Obama back in to the White House.
And as the US changes all around it, the Republicans look more and more like the party of old, white, America.