SAN ANTONIO - Mitt Romney, stepping up efforts to better his standing with a crucial voting bloc, is blaming President Barack Obama for rising joblessness and poverty rates plaguing Hispanic Americans and vowing that he would improve their lot.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who polls indicate is at a steep disadvantage with Hispanic voters after a primary battle that spotlighted his opposition to affording illegal immigrants a path to legal status, Wednesday announced he has tapped a group of prominent Hispanic Republicans to lead his outreach effort. The campaign is calling the effort "Juntos Con Romney," which translates to "Together With Romney."
"The Hispanic community has been especially hard-hit by President Obama's policies," Carlos Gutierrez, a leader of the group who served as Commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, said in a statement. "Together with Mitt Romney, we will be able to do what President Obama has failed to do: fix the economy, create jobs, and get our country on the right track again."
It's the latest move by Romney, 65, who is also running Spanish-language television advertisements in politically competitive states and deploying Spanish-speaking surrogates to speak on his behalf, to make the gains with Hispanic voters he may need to defeat Obama.
"We do need to do better with Hispanic voters, and I think we can," Ed Gillespie, a top Romney advisor, said Wednesday at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg News. Romney's "message of opportunity and economic growth is the way that we're going to attract those votes."
Romney told Texas voters Tuesday that he would focus on building an economy that benefits Americans of all ethnicities.
"I can tell you that if I'm the next president of the United States, I'll be the president for all Americans and make sure this economy is good for all Americans - Hispanic and otherwise," Romney told a few hundred voters packed into the warehouse of a Hispanic-owned office equipment company in Fort Worth, Texas.
Campaigning in a border state with a 38 percent Hispanic population, the former Massachusetts governor never mentioned the politically charged issue of immigration, continuing to speak as protesters briefly chanted, "Education not deportation!" before being escorted out of the event. Romney's jobs-focused message highlighted his strategy of trying to woo Hispanic voters by speaking to their economic worries and aspirations.
"Three-and-a-half years in as president, with America in crisis, with 23 million people out of work or stopped looking for work, he hasn't put forward a plan to get us working again," Romney said of Obama at Southwest Office Systems, a Hispanic-owned family business.
In a web video released by his campaign in both English and Spanish before Tuesday's event, Romney questioned Obama's contention in a recent Internet ad that circumstances have improved for Hispanics. With ominous music as its backdrop, Romney's spot features economic data showing that Hispanic unemployment and poverty rates have risen since the Democrat took office.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate among Hispanics and Latinos has risen during Obama's term, from 9.7 percent when he took office in January 2009 to 11 percent last month. That's three times as big an increase as in the total unemployment rate, which rose from 7.8 percent to 8.2 percent over the same period.
Still, polls show Obama, 50, enjoys a lopsided advantage among Hispanics after a primary in which Romney, emphasized his opposition to measures that would let illegal immigrant share in federal benefits or remain in the country and obtain legal status.
A May 16-21 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of Hispanic registered voters found they favored Obama over Romney, 61 percent to 27 percent.
"It's very clear that Republicans need to do better in the Latino community, and that means inevitably addressing issues of particular importance in the Latino community," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres of Alexandria, Va.-based North Star Opinion Research. "If you're going to reach out and ask for Hispanic support, you need to be sure that you've established positions on issues on which they feel strongly."
Romney is trying to appeal to Hispanics by focusing on discontent about their economic circumstances, which Ayres said is the top issue for them, as it is for voters overall.
"Governor Romney has a real opening if he can paint an alternative vision, a compelling and inspiring vision for a stronger economy," Ayres said.
Hispanic voters helped propel Obama's 2008 White House win, backing him by 67 percent to 31 percent over Republican John McCain, according to exit polls.
A similar grip on such voters in this year's race could swing several states with growing Hispanic populations into Obama's column, including Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
The immigration issue forces Romney and the Republican Party to strike a tricky balance between the political imperative of pleasing the party's base - which backs restrictive policies toward illegal immigrants - and the demographic reality of the growing numbers of Hispanic voters, many of whom are alienated by such measures.
Gillespie said Romney's tough stance on illegal immigration doesn't prevent him from gaining the backing of Hispanic voters. "I don't think that not supporting a very liberal immigration policy disqualifies you from getting the votes of Hispanic Americans," he said.
While the polls suggest Hispanics were turned off by Romney's position during the Republican primary, Obama faces challenges in exploiting the issue because he hasn't fulfilled his promise to overhaul U.S. immigration laws to forge a path to legalization for millions of undocumented workers. The president's camp is arguing that Hispanics would do even worse economically during a Romney presidency.
"Hispanics stand to lose the most from Romney's insistence on the same failed economic policies that created the economic crisis, including his plans to give massive tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, allow Wall Street to write its own rules again and let foreclosures 'hit the bottom,'" Gabriela Domenzain, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement.
"We are seeing results," she added, noting that private sector jobs have increased consistently over the last 27 months.
Romney's advisers believe that by playing on economic concerns, praising legal immigration and highlighting Hispanics' business success stories, he will be able to whittle Obama's edge. His appearance yesterday was at an office equipment company and family business started in 1964 by Victor Puente Sr., whose parents were Mexican immigrants.
"We have lived the American dream," Vince Puente, Victor's son, said before Romney spoke, noting that his grandparents "immigrated legally."
-- With assistance from Lisa Lerer in Washington.