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Why Romney is gaining ground with Latinos in Florida

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
October 22, 2012 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In swing-state Florida, Romney is seeking to contest Obama's support among Latinos
  • Navarrette: Romney has gained ground with idea that he would be stronger president
  • He says Romney is in no position to criticize Obama for failing to achieve immigration reform
  • Navarrette: GOP's lack of solutions, pandering worsened the immigration problem

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. Read this article in Spanish/Lea este artículo en español

(CNN) -- Say what you will about Florida. In a presidential election year, the Sunshine State is never boring.

Once again, the state is a toss-up. It could just as easily go for President Obama as it could for Mitt Romney. So, like Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin, its significance is supersized.

And then there is this: Amid an avalanche of polls showing that Latinos decisively support Obama over Romney, even in "red" states such as Arizona and Texas, Latino Floridians are helping to keep the presidential election pretty competitive.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

CNN Political Ticker: Close contest for Florida's 29 electoral votes

The Romney campaign has, since Labor Day, unleashed a barrage of Spanish-language radio and television ads criticizing Obama.

What the Romney campaign is up to is actually much shrewder than just advertising in Spanish. And it has unveiled the strategy in Florida.

While Obama is leading Romney with Latinos by as many as 50 points nationwide, those numbers are in some ways beside the point. They represent the big picture of the Latino vote.

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Yet, at the end of the day, it is largely irrelevant how well Obama does with Latinos in solidly red states such as Arizona and Texas; those states will go for Romney. And it's just as meaningless how much headway Romney makes with Latinos in California or New York; those states are sure to support Obama.

What we should focus on is how Obama and Romney compare in the toss-up states, specifically the three with large Latino populations: Nevada, Colorado and, yes, Florida. Latinos make up 26.5% of the population in Nevada, 20.7% in Colorado and 22.5% in Florida.

Poll: Romney leading in Florida
CNN poll shows tight race in Florida
FL race tightening; DNC chair responds

Polls show that, among Latino voters, Obama holds wide leads in Nevada and Colorado. But Florida is a different story.

A poll by the Miami Herald and Florida International University (PDF) shows Obama leading Romney among Latinos by only 7 points, 51% to 44%. But a recent Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald poll showed Romney ahead of Obama by two points: 46% to 44%. And the recent polls showed Romney gaining support compared with older ones.

Why one Florida Latino voter is undecided

One could look at these figures and attribute them to the fact that the Latino population in Florida is predominantly made up of Cuban-Americans, who tend to be conservative and vote Republican.

But these days, that explanation only gets you so far. There is a generation gap; younger Cuban-Americans have demonstrated more of a willingness than their parents' generation to vote Democratic. There is also more to the Latino population in Florida than just Cuban-Americans; today, sizable numbers of Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Brazilians and other varieties of Latinos make the political picture more complicated.

Which brings us to the shrewd part. Romney's aides suggest that the gap between the candidates in Florida is closing because of a recent series of ads accusing Obama of something that Latino voters won't tolerate in a president: weakness.

Columnists and bloggers are having fun with it, insisting that, by arguing the president is ineffective, the Romney campaign is daring the Obama campaign to see who is the "mas macho."

Specifically, the Romney/Ryan team insists, Obama is weak because he failed to keep his 2008 campaign promise to make immigration reform a top priority. He pledged to fix a broken system, and he couldn't get it done.

It's fair line of attack. But a Republican like Romney shouldn't be leveling it.

Romney's criticism of Obama is more than merited: The only thing worse than a broken promise are broken families, and Obama has divided hundreds of thousands of families by deporting one or both parents and leaving their U.S.-born children to the tender mercies of the foster care system. In all, this administration has enthusiastically deported more than 1.5 million people, a record number of removals in one four-year term.

And this: When Obama did act, the best he could do was to announce in June a new policy at the Department of Homeland Security in which young undocumented with no criminal records could apply for deferred action and be granted a two-year work visa that can be revoked at any time. Of the estimated 1.4 million undocumented students eligible for relief, about 180,000 have applied, and about 4,500 have been given such a visa.

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But here's what's wrong with Romney's criticism of Obama: If you're a Republican, you have to have a lot of nerve to try to make political hay out of the president's failure to fix the immigration system, given that the GOP has played a major role in keeping it broken over the years by offering bumper sticker solutions to complex problems, pandering to racists and nativists, and failing to deal honestly with the fact that illegal immigrants do jobs that Americans won't do.

Let's hope that Latinos in Florida -- and for that matter, across the country -- see through ad campaigns like the one the Romney-Ryan campaign is running and start holding both parties accountable for problems that somehow never get fixed.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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