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To woo Latinos, Romney needs specifics

By Ana Navarro, CNN Contributor
September 23, 2012 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Mitt Romney, right, appears on Univision with moderators Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos in Miami last week.
Mitt Romney, right, appears on Univision with moderators Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos in Miami last week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ana Navarro: There is a new level of intensity in candidates' courting of Latino vote
  • She says Romney's joke about wishing he were Latino makes sense, was not insulting
  • She says he was able to get enthusiastic crowd for Univision interview, made good showing
  • Navarro: Romney would not give straight answer on immigration or deferred action directive

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) -- There is a new level of intensity in the courting of the Hispanic vote, and it culminated last week in two Univision Candidate Forums, one with Gov. Mitt Romney and one with President Barack Obama.

But before I get to that, there's the issue of the secretly recorded videotape of Romney's remarks at a fundraiser earlier this year, where he was caught on camera saying it would have been helpful if he were Latino. This election cycle, we have seen political operatives perfect the art of feigned outrage. After the video was released, Democrats pounced on the remark, calling it offensive and insulting.

The question regarding Romney possibly having Mexican heritage has come up before. Romney's father was born in a colony of American Mormons in Mexico and soon after, the family moved back to the United States. In Romney's last interview with Univision, in January, the network's co-anchor, Jorge Ramos -- who is fiercely proud of his Mexican descent -- told Romney that under the Mexican Constitution, he could claim Mexican citizenship. Ramos asked Romney why he wasn't embracing his Mexican roots when he could be the first Latino president.

Ana Navarro
Ana Navarro

Romney answered then with a similar answer to the one on the video. He gave a brief description of the circumstances of his father's birth, but then explained that neither he nor his dad was Mexican or had any claim to Hispanic heritage. He finished by quipping, "I don't think people would think I was being honest with them if I said I was Mexican-American. But I would appreciate it if you'd get that word out."

I saw nothing wrong with Romney's answer. Neither did Ramos. Romney is not funny. When he tries to be, it often comes across as awkward. But his remark was not offensive. What would be insulting is if he used his father's Mexican birth to try to pass himself off as what he is not, solely for political purposes.

Romney is not Latino. And he is right: Being Latino would probably help him improve his Latino support, which is around 26%, according to the most recent Gallup poll. It might give him a better understanding of our culture and idiosyncrasies. It would help to be able to say some words in Spanish when campaigning in swing states like Florida, New Mexico and Nevada. Even then, Romney would not win the Latino vote, but it could at least marginally improve his numbers.

Now, back to the Univision Forums: The Presidential Debate Commission did not choose minority moderators. So Univision organized its own forums with both candidates. They weren't debates, but pointed and relevant questions were asked.

Obama vs. Romney at Univision town hall
Candidates' views on immigration reform
Candidates woo Latino voters

I was at both forums. At the forum with Romney, a rowdy and wildly supportive crowd clapped, whooped and hollered at practically every word he said. When the moderators asked questions the audience members didn't like, they booed. Romney got a lot of help from this audience. It gave him energy and unconditional support and reinforcement.

The next day, the Obama crowd was starkly different. It was solemn and eerily quiet. That turned the conversation somber at times. Obama supporters accuse the Romney campaign of packing the room with supporters. That's what campaigns are supposed to do. Both were given the same number of tickets. The Romney campaign out-organized and outsmarted Camp Obama.

Obama gave Univision an hour; Romney gave it only 35 minutes. This was an unfortunate decision. For most of the interview, Romney surpassed expectations and made a good showing. He got a real grilling over his immigration positions. This would have happened no matter how short the interview.

Romney said things during the primary that have come back to haunt him. His tone has now changed. He's gone from talking about self-deportation to saying there will be no massive rounding up and deportations of undocumented people. Now, instead of promising to veto the Dream Act, he invokes Sen. Marco Rubio's plan. He is still not giving much detail on the thornier immigration questions. He talks about fixing legal immigration but doesn't say how he is going to address the 11 million undocumented people already here.

It's a mystery to me what he plans to do with the young undocumented students currently covered by the Obama administration's deferred action directive, which halts their deportation. His campaign tells me his answer could not be any clearer. I have a law degree and still cannot decipher his words. Apparently, neither can the experienced journalists who keep asking him the same question over and over again hoping for a real answer.

In a Telemundo interview, he was asked four separate times if he planned to revoke or keep the Obama directive, which will last for an initial period of two years. During the Univision Forum, co-anchor Maria Elena Salinas tried unsuccessfully three times to get him to give a "yes" or "no" to the same question. Nada. All we got was an unpresidential display of a candidate dancing, prancing and pirouetting around an issue. It was the low moment in an otherwise successful interview for Romney.

Next it was Obama's turn to get grilled about immigration. He was held accountable for promises he made four years ago. Perhaps the most poignant moment came when Obama was asked what he considered his biggest failure. With sad resignation, Obama said it was not having passed immigration reform. Salinas ended the point by telling Obama, "So I think the answer is, yes, with many excuses, but you actually broke your promise." Ouch! This was a rare moment of humility.

In a way, it felt cathartic that after years of making excuses, he finally took responsibility and admitted he failed. It revealed Obama's vulnerability on the issue. I would not be surprised to see that exchange turned into a 30-second Spanish ad by the Romney campaign.

Here is what mattered most: Both candidates recognized the Hispanic vote is crucial and deserves attention. It is to the advantage of Hispanics not to be taken for granted by one party and ignored by the other. Hispanics will realize their political power only if courted and engaged by both sides. This week we were.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ana Navarro.

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