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Roll Call

Immigration Debate Absent in Pleas to Latino Voters

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Puerto Rico delegate Carlos Mendez cheers for Gov. Luis Fortu√Īo of Puerto Rico on Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention.

TAMPA, Fla. - In the final night of the convention here, as Republicans made clear and repeated overtures to Hispanic voters, one giant elephant in the room remained: immigration reform.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, arguably the GOP's most prominent Latino politician, wowed delegates on his home turf. Presidential nominee Mitt Romney's son Craig delivered several paragraphs of his speech in well-intoned Spanish. "Hispanics 4 Mitt" posters were distributed to Latino delegates in cowboy hats. And a pre-recorded video shown in the forum championed the refrain "'Si se puede' is not enough," a direct knock on President Barack Obama and the Spanish translation of his 2008 campaign slogan, "Yes we can."

But none of the speakers directly addressed the politically complicated issues of comprehensive immigration reform or Obama's recently enacted executive order that stays deportations and grants work permits for DREAM Act-eligible illegal immigrants, children who have lived in America for much of their lives and are enrolled in a university or enlisted in the military.

And even the most passionate advocates of immigration reform say they think it's better that way.

"I am not particularly keen on it being addressed at the convention. I don't think it works for us. My goal is for us to be elected. My goal is for us to be elected - for Ryan and Romney to be elected - and I don't think an in-depth, detailed discussion of immigration by any speaker advances that cause," former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said in an interview with Roll Call. "Most Hispanics are more concerned about jobs than they are about immigration. I think what we need to do is after the election figure out how we can have a sensible policy that is well reasoned and that is compatible with the things Gov. Romney has already said about those issues."

Martinez, who served one term in the Senate after a stint as President George W. Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was one of the lead co-sponsors, along with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), of a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2006. He continues to be one of the few GOP advocates of additional pathways to citizenship, noting hours before tonight's primetime program, "I am incredibly sympathetic of the Dreamers and I support some sort of form of the DREAM Act."

The conspicuous absence of a conversation on immigration in front of millions of American viewers tonight likely will not help Romney chip into the huge advantage Obama has built with Latino voters. Obama leads Romney by a 63 percent to 28 percent margin, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

Though former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told a group of reporters earlier in the day that he supports the DREAM Act, which would provide permanent residence for undocumented students, he did not mention it once in the address he delivered tonight on the topic of education.

"But having a solution to the fact that we have all these young people, many of whom are making great contributions and don't have connections to their parents' home country, yeah of course I'm for it," Bush said in the session with reporters, before noting, "Then again, I'm not running for anything and can speak my mind."

Rubio, who has introduced his own version of the DREAM Act, did not speak about immigration issues in his widely anticipated and well-received speech that introduced the rising Republican star to a massive national audience. The freshman Senator is the son of Cuban immigrants and used his personal narrative, not policy positions, to appeal to potential Hispanic voters.

In lieu of a formal policy debate on immigration, Romney and the Republicans are banking on economic issues and hoping that voters, regardless of demographic, will want a change of course that leads to more jobs and growth.

Top Romney adviser Ed Gillespie told Univision News earlier in the day that while the nominee supports family reunification policies, the topic of immigration is not the most important of the election, saying there were larger problems Romney needed to address in the biggest speech of his political career.

"Look, there are some elections when, for example, national security is a big issue. When I was chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2004, that election was about national security," Gillespie said. "There have been times when immigration is the biggest issue. But the issue that most voters want to hear about is economy and jobs. That doesn't mean that [immigration] is not important. Gov. Romney has addressed it and will continue to do so."

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