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A Republican group that includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday will kick off its efforts to improve the party's outreach to Hispanic voters, many of whom have been critical of some GOP candidates' harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration.
The new Hispanic Action Network is part of a growing number of Republican organizations reaching out to Hispanics in advance of next year's presidential election -- and it has powerful support.
The group is backed by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, whose American Action Network funneled more than $30 million in campaign funds to Republicans in about 30 congressional races last year.
Republicans don't need to win a majority of Hispanic votes. But with the Latino population growing in swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and Florida, Republicans need to chip away at Hispanics' overall 2-1 preference for Democrats.
Democrats say their party's support comes from their stances on issues such as health care, education and the economy, as well as its response to Republican attacks on illegal immigrants.
But Bush and other Republicans have long maintained their party is a natural fit for Hispanics, particularly recent immigrants, because of the party's social conservatism, anti-abortion stance and positions for private school vouchers and other school choice proposals as well as lower taxes.
Bush, who met his Mexican-born wife Columba when he taught English in her homeland, said the party needs to be more engaged in the Hispanic community and not just during election campaigns.
"It's about more than running ads in the Spanish-language media," said Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish. "It's also about showing people you want them to be part of the effort, putting in the time even when people aren't looking...it means using rhetoric that doesn't turn people off."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible 2010 presidential candidate, announced a similar effort in Washington, D.C., last month with his Americanos group. Meanwhile, Alfonso Aguilar, former President George W. Bush's first citizenship and immigration czar, now runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
The former president, who is Jeb Bush's brother, had a stronger and more successful Hispanic outreach program than almost any other national Republican. He unsuccessfully pushed sweeping immigration reform during his presidency.
Jeb Bush told The Associated Press Tuesday "the more the merrier" as far as outreach programs goes. Unlike Gingrich, he says he has ruled out running for president in 2012. That's despite his close ties to the Cuban-American community and his work on Latin American trade, all of which could help make him one of the few Republicans to win a sizable Latino vote. Another conference attendee, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is considered a likely Republican candidate for president in 2012.
The Republican groups need to overcome several obstacles. The immigration rhetoric of some GOP candidates frequently overshadowed other issues during the 2010 election, such as when tea party-backed Republican Senate candidate Sharon Angle of Nevada ran ads portraying illegal immigrants as thuggish gang members.
The House Republican leadership took a symbolic step toward bridging the gap with Latino voters last week in bypassing controversial Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa as the next chairman of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration. King once suggested on the House floor that an electrified border fence would stop illegal immigrants, likening it to the practice used to corral livestock.
Yet so far, the only new Republican proposal on immigration has come from a group of state lawmakers who are looking to trigger a Supreme Court review of the Constitution's 14th Amendment. As currently applied, it grants automatic citizenship to anyone born in the country, including the children of illegal immigrants. If the court upholds that application, they want Congress and the states to amend the amendment.
Simon Rosenberg, head of the liberal-leaning NDN organization, applauded Republican efforts to reach Latinos.
"It would be bad for the Latino community to only have one political party working with them," he said. "I think it is very important that Jeb Bush move the party forward."
But Rosenberg questioned the notion that Hispanics have more in common with conservatives than Democrats. For example, he said, Hispanics are more likely to be uninsured than the average American and thus more likely to benefit from the Democrats' recent health care overhaul that will greatly expand insurance coverage.
He said the GOP needs more than improved outreach.
"There is a reactionary strain in the Republican Party that is angry about how the country is changing," he added, referring to the effects of immigration. "We are moving toward a majority nonwhite country. That is very difficult for some people to accept. And those people tend to be more Republican.
"Jeb Bush represents the future of the Republican Party. But he doesn't represent the present," Rosenberg said.
Bush and Gingrich support comprehensive immigration reform, but GOP leadership must still satisfy those who want to focus solely on border security, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a fan of Arizona-style immigration legislation. That state passed a law last year that requires immigrants to carry papers proving they are in the country legally and requires police officers to check the immigration status of any person they reasonably believe might be in the country illegally. A judge has placed those provisions on hold pending hearings on their constitutionality.
Scott will be among the keynote speakers Thursday night at the conference in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. Others include the co-chair, former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno and Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
Coleman said he's proud of the diverse perspectives the conference will offer and hopes it leads to serious debate.
"So much of immigration is about tone," he said. Coleman added that newly elected Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez talk about immigration and border security "but in a tone that is helpful and respectful."
But neither Rubio nor Martinez will be at the conference, nor will newly elected Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Coleman said both Sandoval and Martinez come from faraway states and have just begun their jobs. Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos said the senator would be working on official business outside of South Florida but declined to release a public schedule for the day.
Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report from Washington.