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Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that the Republican Party's continued struggles with the Latino vote can be primarily tied to hardline stances on immigration stances often projected at the expense of a compassionate message aimed at that population.
"[That] has been off-putting to some in the Latino community," Herbert said. "I think sometimes Republicans lose the 'I care' debate."
The comments came at Herbert's monthly news conference at KUED-TV at the University of Utah.
With national polls showing a wide chasm between Democrats and Republicans supported by Latino voters, the quest to appeal to that bloc has been in the spotlight as it has steadily exerted influence in key swing states amid rapid population growth.
Democrats have largely been the beneficiaries.
According to a Latino Decisions poll released this week, President Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney 69 percent to 24 percent. Since the Republican National Convention, the Latino Decisions' tracking poll showed Romney's support among Latinos cresting at 30 percent. It has steadily declined since.
In Utah, Latinos make up 13.2 percent of the overall population. And in Salt Lake County, the Latino population stood at 17.4 percent large enough that, for the first time in county history, ballots will be printed in both English and Spanish as required by federal law.
Democrats have seized on that, with the state party having nine Hispanic candidates vying for legislative seats.
The Republicans have just one Latino candidate running for the Legislature.
Melodía Gutiérrez, Latino outreach director for the Utah Democratic Party, said she was glad to hear Herbert acknowledge the GOP's shortcomings in reaching out to Latinos.
But she also said a lot of damage has already been done by Republicans touting tough rhetoric focused on fence-building at the border, Romney's self-deportation comment and GOP opposition to a bill that would provide children brought to the country illegally an opportunity to obtain citizenship by attending college or serving in the military.
She also said enforcement-only laws like Arizona's SB1070 and Utah's HB497 have been devastating.
"I think those things resonate and create a culture of fear," Gutiérrez said. "It makes us feel subhuman."
But Herbert said the Republican Party "lines up very well with hard-working Latino families," and there should be broad appeal when it comes to values. He said, however, the party needs to do a better job getting the message out.
"We're so concentrating on teaching people how to fish and so they can take care of themselves for their lifetime," Herbert said, referring to the Chinese proverb. "We forget that they're hungry and we need to give them a fish now and find a way for them not to starve to death in the meantime."
Nonsense, said Janalee Tobias.
Tobias, a representative on the Utah Commission on Immigration and Migration, said Latinos would be more supportive of tougher crackdowns on illegal immigrants. She said Arizona, with a Latino population just over 30 percent, elects tough-on-immigration politicians.
"Latinos here legally are upset with ones who come here illegally," she said. "Look at [Arizona] Governor Jan Brewer she's more popular than ever. And [Maricopa County] Sheriff Joe Arpaio keeps getting re-elected."