Changing demographics and an intense national discussion on immigration have put the focus on Latino voters in an unprecedented way this election season.
With the Republican National Convention's choice of Tampa this year, the party has a chance to highlight its own rising Latino political stars as well as make a targeted pitch to Latino voters.
Latinos make up 17 percent of all Americans and that number is growing quickly. Many live and vote in important swing states like Colorado, Nevada and Florida. Mitt Romney's own strategists believe he needs more than 35 percent of the Latino vote to win in November. Right now he's polling at 23 percent.
"Turnout is going to be a problem for the Hispanic communities in general," said Susan MacManus, University of South Florida political science professor, on The Daily Circuit Tuesday. "They seem to be of the opinion that other groups are getting more attention than they are and yet they're the fastest growing group and yet it just seems to be easy to push them aside ... If you're a Latino young person, you feel that."
In Florida, the political divides are a bit more complicated where there are more than 2 million Latinos registered to vote in the state. They include Cuban-American voters, who have long largely supported Republicans and growing numbers of Puerto Ricans from the northeast and the island. Other Latino voters in Florida trace their roots to Colombia, Venezuela and other Latin American countries.
As of Aug. 1, 39 percent of registered Latino voters call themselves Democrats and 30 percent registered as Republicans.
"It is a much more diverse vote than a lot of people think," MacManus said. "Country of origin matters a lot in Hispanic politics, at least in our state."
Florida's Latino voters are also younger than the state's average voter age. Twenty-five percent of eligible Latino voters are 18 to 29 years old compared to 19 percent who are that age overall.
For those younger voters, the Republican Party's stance on immigration could turn them away.
Immigration reform is "going to be a key part of the presidential debates and the vice presidential debate," MacManus said. "It is in the Republicans' interest to get something together that makes sense to a lot of people. But the party is disparate... The Republican Party has a faction that is very strict in terms of enforcement of immigration laws."
Although President Obama announced a policy directive in June that would make about 800,000 young people whose parents brought them to the United States safe from deportation, his efforts might not have been enough to sway voters, said Luz Urbaez Weinberg, a city commissioner from Aventura, Fla.
"It was a big step, but a minor move toward the comprehensive immigration reform that we'd been hoping for the last five, six years," Weinberg said.
But the GOP faces a much tougher challenge with young Latino voters. To capture those younger voters, the Republican Party has to give solid answers to the Latino voters on its immigration stance, she said.
"I think the question has been kind of dodged by the party," Urbaez Weinberg said. "There's a lot of opportunity for my party to do something. I don't feel like we've totally done that; I'm hoping that now that the nomination is official, that they'll spend the next couple months really having a real conversation and a plan to capture those votes. Because absent that, they're not going to capture those votes and they're out there for grabs."
Luis, a caller from St. Paul, said the country needs to rethink immigration policies.
"I think the focus should be in rewarding those who had the courage to find freedom," he said. "They aren't coming here because they want [to], they're coming because they're no jobs. They have governments that are authoritarian. So I really don't think we're rewarding those who break the law."
While immigration will be a hot-button issue this election, Latino voters are talking about the same top issues as other voters, said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, who also joined the discussion. He said jobs are on the minds of many Latinos.
"Over the last few years, it's Latinos that have been hit hardest by the recession when it comes to losing wealth, when it comes to losing their homes, when it comes to unemployment and when it comes to childhood poverty," Lopez said.
To reach Latino voters, Republicans will have to do more than put Latino figures up on the RNC podium, MacManus said. Those figures will have to start hitting the campaign trail and meeting with potential voters.
"It's the personal contact and personal communication that makes a lot of difference with Hispanic voters without question," she said.
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Kerri Miller and Meggan Ellingboe contributed to this report.