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Romney's tough challenge with Latino voters

LOS ANGELES -- As a Republican primary race increasingly defined by demographics and math drags into April, a daunting demographic mountain looms on the horizon for Mitt Romney if he becomes the GOP presidential nominee: winning over Latino voters who could prove to be pivotal in November.

For Republicans, the math is simple -- and harsh. There are 38.7 million Latinos in the United States, making them the country's largest minority group, according to the most recent Census data. And a recent poll shows if the election were held today, Latino voters would break decisively in President Obama's favor over Romney, to the tune of a 70% to 14% drubbing.

That's worse than John McCain's performance in the 2008 election, when exit polls showed him winning just 31% of the Latino vote. In 2004, George W. Bush won re-election -- narrowly -- after getting some 40% of the Latino vote.

The recent poll of 1,200 likely Latino voters, conducted for Fox News and released March 7, also shows approval ratings for Romney and the Republican Party among this demographic group. Only 25% of respondents viewed Republicans positively, while 60% said they had unfavorable views of the GOP. For Romney, the numbers were slightly better -- 24% favorable, 44% unfavorable.

With Latino-heavy states like Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada expected to be major general election battlegrounds this fall, those numbers could add up to disaster for Republican efforts to retake the White House.

Some Democrats see Romney's and the Republican party's potential general election problems with Latinos as entirely self-inflicted. The reason: Those in the party who are most opposed to illegal immigration have become the loudest voices.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the chairman of the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and a prominent Obama campaign surrogate, told a group of reporters Tuesday that he saw Romney's opposition to the DREAM Act as "problematic" and his concept of self-deportation for illegal immigrants as "beyond the pale."

The DREAM Act, which was unable to win 60 Senate votes in late 2010, is legislation that would provide legal status and a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants who are working toward a college degree or who served in the U.S. military.

"I don't know what their strategy is," Villaraigosa responded when asked how he thought Republicans might successful get Latino voters back into the tent this fall. "I'm trying to figure it out."

"I think he's going to have to walk back to the center on the DREAM Act," Villaraigosa, himself of Mexican descent, told reporters, noting of Romney dismissively, "He'll be the first candidate from a major party not to support comprehensive immigration reform."

Villaraigosa predicted Romney may try to add a name with cache among Latinos to the ticket -- Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush came quickly to mind -- but said he saw no particular policy issues for the Republicans and Romney to use to get Latinos back into the GOP tent.

But picking Rubio, who endorsed Romney on Wednesday night, is not a panacea. Only 24% of Latino voters surveyed in the Fox poll said having Rubio on the ticket would make them more likely to vote for the Republican nominee.

But looking closely at poll numbers brings out possible a silver lining for Republicans, and particularly for Romney. Fully 50% of the Latino respondents in the Fox poll said the economy would be the issue that most influenced their vote this fall, and Obama's economic approval rating (while still high at 58%) was lower than his overall approval among Latinos.

Furthermore, despite a narrow majority describing themselves as strong a Democrat, Democrat, or lean Democrat, half of all respondents also described themselves as conservative or strong solid conservative, suggesting the possibility of a crossover vote in the fall, should the economy remain the dominant issue.

The importance of the economy to Latino voters has not been lost on the Romney campaign. In an interview last fall, the Romney campaign's director of national outreach, James Garcia, told NBC News that campaign believed Romney's laser focus on the economy could help win over Latino voters.

"Right now, Hispanic voters are concerned. They're concerned about the economy. They're concerned about whether they're going to have a job tomorrow. Whether their brother, their sister or their neighbor is going to have a job tomorrow, and that's the situation we're in, just because of the failure that this president has been,' Garcia said.

Villaraigosa acknowledged the preeminence of the economy in his chat with reporters Tuesday, admitting "We're sitting in the worst economy since the 1930's."

In that, Romney's campaign sees an opening to win over the Latino vote on the strength of their tried and true economic message.

"There's probably nothing more important right now to Hispanic voters than the discussion, the conversation about what a presidential candidate is going to do about jobs and the economy, what we're going to do to turn this economy around," Garcia said.