Editor's note: Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, served as national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.
(CNN) -- This week, the National Council of La Raza is hosting its annual conference in Las Vegas. The group is the biggest kid on the Hispanic block. Starting with George H.W. Bush, every Democrat and Republican president and nominee has addressed the conference. This year, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is doing so.
This is surprising in a year when plenty has been said about the importance of the Latino vote. Romney needs to do better than John McCain did in 2008. Obama needs to recapture Latino lightning in a bottle. He needs a wide margin of victory among Latinos and a high voter turnout.
Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to speak at this week's conference. The National Council of La Raza won't get the top dog. It will get the attack dog. You can send a No. 2 to burials and weddings of foreign leaders and to conferences you don't want to attend.
It's hard to express disappointment about merely getting the U.S. vice president to show up. Romney doesn't have a running mate. His campaign sent former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez as a surrogate. The National Council of La Raza said the agenda was full and didn't give him a speaking slot.
Surely, if Obama or Romney had made a last-minute decision to attend, an opening would have miraculously materialized. After more than 20 years of having the nominees themselves address their conference, accepting a surrogate would set a bad precedent and make it easier for future nominees to skip the conference.
Obama and Romney are passing up a great political opportunity. Speeches in front of different constituency groups are less about the conferees in the room and more about a platform to speak to the millions outside. These appearances get blanket coverage in English and Spanish media. The conference is in Nevada, a swing state. Every time Obama or Romney has the chance to make a showing in the state, they should jump at it.
Obama is basking in the afterglow of a couple of recent decisions. Latinos overwhelmingly support his policy change benefiting undocumented young people who were brought here as minors. Second, the Supreme Court's decision to reverse most of Arizona's SB 1070 but keep its most controversial provision has further helped position Obama. His Department of Justice has declared that it will not cooperate with Arizona in its enforcement.
Romney may not be forcing a mano-a-mano battle with Obama on immigration, but Republican super PACs will. Spanish media will be inundated with negative ads about the president's broken immigration promises and economic failures.
It is folly for Obama to think he has done enough to repair the strained relationship with disillusioned Latinos who've lived through the highest deportation rates in history and an 11% unemployment rate. Obama cannot afford to have Latinos stay home. His advantage with Latino voters will carry less of a punch if he doesn't come close to the 2008 turnout.
Romney has a different problem. Most Hispanics don't really know much about him. The little they do know, the majority doesn't like. He needs to change hearts, minds and voter intentions, or he can say adios to the White House. National Council of La Raza members are predominantly Democrats, and many hold Romney's immigration positions against him.
It's not an easy crowd for Romney. Precisely because of that, he would score points just for showing up. This is particularly true since Obama is not.
To his credit, this week, Romney is speaking at the NAACP Convention, another meeting Obama is passing on.
Romney doing back-to-back events at NCLR and NAACP would send a powerful message of inclusiveness that would be noticed beyond those two communities. Attending the National Council of La Raza Conference would be an opportunity for Romney to show a commitment to Latinos and highlight Obama's absence from the conference and from the immigration debate until it came time for re-election.
Romney spoke in front of another Latino organization last month. It felt like an awkward first date, but he showed he is not afraid to address difficult subjects in front of a skeptical audience. It also earned him much-needed coverage in Spanish media. Romney has not sat down with any of the major Spanish media outlets since the Florida primary in January.
If he battles Obama for the heart and soul of Latinos, he still won't win a majority of the vote. But he could narrow the gap. Just one president ago, Republican George W. Bush earned 44% of the Hispanic vote. Republicans can compete for the Hispanic vote, but we need a good messenger delivering the right message. If Romney wants to get his foot in the door, he better start by knocking.
It is a mistake for Obama to skip the National Council of La Raza Conference. It is an even bigger mistake for Romney.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ana Navarro.