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GOP showcasing Hispanic stars

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are popular, relative political newcomers in presidential battleground states.

The rising GOP stars are also Hispanics, something the Republican Party makes no secret of hoping to capitalize on in the upcoming national elections.

National Republicans are inviting them on international fact finding trips, courting them for high-profile public appearances and whispering their names as possibilities for vice presidential nominations.

“They represent the American dream,” said Fred Malek, founder of the conservative American Action Network and its spinoff, the Hispanic Leadership Network, whose mission is to bring Hispanics into the party. “They represent what America is all about – how to succeed. How to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, reach success and show leadership. They all share that.”

But wooing the Hispanic vote takes more than floating candidates with Latino names, as was obvious last month when the Hispanic Leadership Network held a conference in New Mexico. Martinez, after delivering the keynote dinner speech, was heckled by a group of some 50 young Latinos, upset by her aggressive attempts to repeal a law that lets illegal immigrants get state driver’s licenses.

“Stop the Hate,” the protesters yelled, while a table of conference attendees stood up and began chanting “USA, USA.”

The scene underscores the complexities both political parties face as they set their sights on the nation’s biggest and fastest growing, but traditionally Democratic-leaning, minority group – which is as diverse as Martinez, Sandoval and Rubio and the swing states they represent. Rubio is the son of Cuban exiles, a group that tends to have widely different views on immigration than Mexican-Americans in the Southwest and border-state Hispanics who trace their roots to early Spanish settlers.

“It’s just as dangerous to stereotype a Latino or a Latina voter as it is to assume that all white voters think and act the same way,” said Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who now teaches at the University of Southern California.

While having a Hispanic on a Republican ballot will never sway hard core Democrats and many traditionally liberal leaning groups, Schnur says it may cause some voters to give the GOP a second look.

And the Republican Party sees an opportunity to lure more moderate and conservative Hispanics with pro-family, pro-jobs, strong work ethic themes that appeal to immigrants.

“Here is the new frontier of immigrants,” Malek said. “The people who came to this country for the same reason my grandparents came to this country at the turn of the last century – to make their way and build their future.”

While Republicans are frank about their hope these three can bring more Hispanics into the GOP fold, the real benefits go way beyond the upcoming presidential elections, Schnur said.

Democrats are skeptical that Latino voters will be swayed.

“Latinos do not vote surnames,” Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said, noting that neither Martinez nor Sandoval won the majority Hispanic vote in their own states. “They vote according to policies and they know very well that Sandoval, Martinez and Rubio do not represent the best interests of the overall Latino population in terms of giving them the tools to prosper in this tough economy.”