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GOP hopefuls seeking to sway votes of Latino voters

With the presidential campaign in full swing, the spotlight is on Hispanic voters and what they will decide at the polls -- now in Florida and in the general presidential election.

When it comes to the Republican primary candidates’ views on immigration reform and other issues, Hispanic voters are divided, local officials say.

Latino voters compile about 13 percent of the 11.2 million registered voters in Florida, according to the PEW Research Center. In Manatee, there are nearly 2,000 Hispanic voters registered as Republicans, the county’s elections office shows.

Some local leaders contend Republican Party views correlate more with Latino ideals.

Kathleen King, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Manatee County, says faith, family and business are the values that Hispanics have in common with the GOP.

“That’s the way that we’re trying to appeal to them,” she said.

But more Hispanics are registered as Democrats than Republicans in Manatee. Of the 202,438 registered voters in Manatee County, about 4 percent are Hispanic. Of that number, 3,569 Hispanic voters are registered as Democrats.

C.J. Czaia, chair of UnidosNow, an immigration reform group, says that although Latinos tend to have conservative ideals, the “racist politics” pursued by candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are driving away Hispanics.

“I cannot stand the racist, the backwards mentality of the current party,” said Czaia, a Democrat.

The candidates’ remarks are “alienating” the Hispanic demographic, adds Kelly Kirschner, director of UnidosNow.

Gingrich has said he is open to providing residency, not citizenship, to undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least 20 years. This week during a debate in Tampa, Romney said undocumented immigrants should “self-deport.”

But Czaia notes that not all Latinos care about immigration reform.

Cubans and Puerto Ricans, he said, tend to care less about immigration reform and more about social issues. The reason: Cubans can become residents just by touching American soil, and Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens.

Cuba native Jose Baserva, owner of Jose’s Real Cuban Food restaurant in Bradenton, said he’s not bothered by the candidates’ immigration reform remarks.

“I think that they’re expressing those views as far as illegal immigrants,” Baserva said. “Not immigrants like me.” Baserva’s family emigrated from Santiago, Cuba, when he was 18 months old.

Bill Grant, member of the Republican Party of Manatee County’s outreach committee, said it’s “a lot easier” for immigrants coming from communist countries to embrace the Republican Party because “they have seen first-hand what socialism does, that it’s counter-productive.”

But for Latinos from other countries, immigration reform is the No. 1 issue, Czaia said. One out of four Latino voters know someone who has been deported or is facing deportation, according to a Latino Decisions poll last year.

Susan MacManus, politics professor at the University of South Florida, said the candidates “softened their tone” regarding immigration reform during their campaigning efforts in the Sunshine State. Their stops included Miami, known for its massive Hispanic Republican-voting population.

Latinos in general, just like non-Hispanic voters, care about other issues as well, MacManus said.

Because service and construction industries – which employ many Latinos – have been hit hard by the economic slump, they have a high interest in the economy, MacManus said.

Latinos are also “very concerned about educational opportunities” because it’s a path to a better economic situation.

But although neither candidate has a “blemish-free record” when it comes to speaking about immigration reform, “there’s never a candidate that everybody feels is 100 percent terrific,” MacManus said.

UnidosNow members have been calling voters its Latino voters registered as Republicans in Manatee and Sarasota counties to encourage them to vote during the primary election.

Whether Latino voters swing to the left or right side of politics, Kirschner said, they “need to exercise their vote for whoever it may be.”