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Remembering the 1996 fiasco
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All of the Democratic presidential candidates said they would speak at the nation’s largest gathering of Hispanic elected officials at the end of June. All of the GOP candidates said no.
The Republicans were all busy elsewhere, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials that sponsors the annual convention was told by the different campaigns.
What was so important? John McCain’s people sent me a statement citing an unspecified scheduling conflict. Representatives for Mitt Romney told me he had to be at a candidate’s forum being held by the Iowa Christian Alliance. Rudy Giuliani’s campaign did not return phone calls before deadline.
The lead Republican at the NALEO convention in Orlando, Fla., was local boy Mel Martinez.
That’s not too shabby. He’s a United States senator and chairman of the Republican National Committee. But presidential candidate he is not.
Hessy Fernandez, of the RNC’s press office, said that while Martinez looked forward to the convention, he had “no way of controlling presidential candidates’ schedules.”
One has to ask if the Republican candidates decided to pander to the party’s grass roots by not appearing to pander to Hispanics during the current furies on the stalled immigration bill.
No, no, no, one is told. Republicans still want the Hispanic vote.
McCain is “taking his common-sense conservative message that includes spending restraint, strong national security addressed in comprehensive immigration reform and support for traditional values directly to all Americans, including Hispanics.”
Romney considered NALEO’s invitation but decided not to break the previous commitment in Iowa. He “has a conservative agenda that appeals to many Hispanics, and has made Florida a top priority,” said Romney spokesman Alex Burgos.
It is a long way to the election. In November 2008, nobody is going to remember the NALEO snub. But the incident is a reminder that some Republicans are increasingly looking like Bob Dole in 1996.
Dole had been a moderate Republican senator, a World War II veteran of unchallenged courage. Yet during the presidential campaign that year he was unwilling to make a clean cut with the hard right of the party, which was then in the midst of one of its periodic anti-immigrant fevers. The result: He was crushed by Bill Clinton, and received a record-low 20 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Is this where Republicans are headed?
McCain has stayed good on immigration reform, but Romney isn’t sure whether immigration reform is “amnesty” (in a speech this past March to the Conservative Political Action Conference) or “quite different” from amnesty (in a November 2005 interview with The Boston Globe).
And the Rudy Giuliani who once upon a time knew in his bones that immigrants have always been the soul of New York City, is nowhere to be found. Instead, there’s some bald guy that kind of looks like him, carelessly throwing around the A-word.
Maybe he’s going to Iowa?

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
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