Certainly, Texas Gov. Rick Perry isn't the perfect presidential candidate. He often makes controversial and damaging statements.
His performance in debates, including the one Tuesday night in New Hampshire, is dull at best, cringe-worthy at worst. And he supports granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants — a position that, for Republican primary voters, is as popular as supporting a nuclear-armed Iran.
In fact, voters have sharply criticized Perry for these tuition breaks on the campaign trail. Some say the Texas law is a magnet for illegal immigration; others say it's just wrong to give a taxpayer-subsidized benefit to illegals. Both of these criticisms are valid.
But still, conservatives should think long and hard before rejecting Perry and embracing an immigration hardliner. Next year’s election is going to be close, and harsh anti-illegal immigration chatter, like that from front-runners Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, will cost Republicans valuable votes.
Whether or not you support Perry, the truth is he’s the last GOP candidate who is able to take Hispanic votes from Obama in 2012, and in so doing, deliver the White House to Republicans.
Hispanics are the fastest growing population and capturing their vote is crucial. In 2008, two-thirds of Latino voters supported Obama; and in Florida, the mother of all presidential swing states, Obama received 57 percent of the Latino vote. Hispanic support also helped Obama win other key states in 2008, like Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado.
Support from Latinos will be even more valuable next year. The WSJ reports that between 2008 and 2010, the number of Hispanics eligible to vote in key swing states increased as follows: Nevada 19.9 percent, Florida 13.5 percent, Colorado 9.5 percent, and New Mexico 7.0 percent. The numbers speak for themselves: the Hispanic population is exploding.
Wisely recognizing this surge, the Obama camp has been ramping up outreach to Latinos. In recent months, Obama addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ annual gala, honored the contributions of Latinos at the American Latino Heritage forum, and even held a roundtable for Hispanic journalists at the White House.
Obama also appointed Latino-sensation Shakira to his education advisory board for Hispanics, and invited actors Eva Longoria and America Ferrera to the White House to discuss immigration. Apparently for Obama, it’s mi casa blanca es su casa blanca.
But despite this notable effort, it’ll be difficult for Obama to retain the same large margin of Hispanic support he had in 2008. Hispanic unemployment sits at 11.3 percent — higher than the national average — and his job approval rating among this group has dropped to a low of 48 percent. Like all Americans, Latinos are suffering in this economy, and are ready for new leadership.
Regardless of your ethnicity, the 2012 election will be about jobs, the economy, and leadership.
Perry, armed with a strong record of job creation and the right tone on immigration, could win over many democratic-leaning Hispanics. Sure, he may be in dire need of a debate coach, but Romney isn’t perfect either. After years campaigning, he still cannot get more than a quarter of Republicans to back him.
As a third-term governor of Texas, Perry knows how to appeal to Latinos; more than a third of Texas’s population is Hispanic. He has the most firsthand experience with immigration policy due to Texas’s shared border with Mexico. Perry can simultaneously promote border security and appeal to Hispanic voters.
And conservatives can rest assured that Perry is no softie on illegal immigration. He spent $400 million dollars to secure the Texas border. And Texas, under his governance, prevents illegals from obtaining driver's licenses and requires voters to present legal identification at the polls.
But — and this is important — Perry has managed to avoid the harsh language that turns Latinos off. He can oppose amnesty and the federal DREAM Act without alienating Hispanics. And his passionate defense of tuition breaks further endears him to this demographic.
It’s true that some Hispanics will always support Obama because they favor a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. But the Republican goal is not to obtain the entire Hispanic vote. The goal is to get more of it — just enough to capture the swing states. For this, Perry, despite his flaws, is the right man for the job.
Mahsa Saeidi-Azcué is a Fox News and MSNBC commentator, and a former assistant district attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y.
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