By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON, Aug 13 (Reuters) - Has Mitt Romney, the U.S. Republican Party's candidate for November's presidential elections, given up hope of boosting his dismal standing among U.S. citizens of Latin American extraction? The question arises after Romney's pick of a running mate of no apparent appeal to Latinos.
Romney's choice as candidate for Vice President, the ultra-conservative congressman Paul Ryan, is a darling of the Republican Party's rigidly ideological base but has done nothing that could endear him to the fastest growing segment of the American electorate. On average, around 1,600 Latinos turn 18, voting age, every day and by November 6, some 22 million will be eligible to vote.
Romney is aware of how important their vote will be - in April, two reporters overheard him talk about the subject in a closed-door meeting with donors in Palm Beach. His message then, according to the eavesdropping journalists, was blunt: failure to win over more Latinos "spells doom for us." Since then, the Romney campaign stepped up efforts to court Latinos with television ads and a Spanish-language website.
That failed to narrow the wide gap in Latino support between President Barack Obama and his rival. In July, the latest in a string of public opinion polls with similar results showed 23 percent would vote for Romney and 67 percent for Obama. While support for Romney has been going down, Obama held steady. The President won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008.
Romney's standing among Latinos is the worst for a Republican presidential candidate since 1996 and number-crunching pundits from both ends of the political spectrum have estimated that he would need more than 30 percent of the Latino vote to win. Which makes his choice of Ryan baffling. Of all the potential running mates Romney could have picked from, Ryan is probably the one least likely to draw in Latino support.
"Choosing him means he's turning his back on Latinos," said Fabian Nunez, a democratic political analyst for the Spanish-language Univision network in a debate on the Romney/Ryan ticket. Andres Oppenheimer, an author and writer on Latin affairs, commented that Romney had lost a major opportunity to pick a Vice President who would appeal to Latinos. "Looks like the Romney campaign gave up on the Hispanic vote altogether."
Ryan rose to stardom in the Tea Party movement in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives as the author of budget proposals that would tear apart America's social safety net on which Latinos and African-Americans tend to rely more than whites or Asian Americans. Ryan's views of the role of government have been inspired, by his own account, by the work of Ayn Rand, the patron saint of unfettered capitalism.
In her best-known book, "Atlas Shrugged", the controversial philosopher laid out a vision of a world where "money is the root of all good" and those expecting government to solve their problems are parasites. In a 2005 speech, Ryan described Rand as the thinker who prompted him to get involved in government service.
He has since dissociated himself from that remark, a revision of his personal history that echoes the habits of Romney, who has been trying hard to distance himself from the health care system he introduced when he was governor of Massachusetts. That state's system is virtually indistinguishable from what Obama's health care reform is introducing, a system Republicans term Obamacare and portray as a step towards the Socialist Republic of the United States.
It will be interesting to see how Romney and Ryan plan to sell their vision of the country to Americans on the lower end of the economic scale given their plan largely consists of smaller government, tax reforms that favor the very rich, and fewer social services. Romney's choice of Ryan has made virtually certain that the final stretch of the presidential election campaign will be an ideological battle about the role of government.
"It is a debate Republicans have almost never won when they've put it directly before voters in the past," wrote John Harris and Mike Allen in an analysis for Politico, the Washington news organization.
That holds true for the general electorate but even more so for Latinos, who have voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1972. The highest score for a Republican in those 40 years was 44 percent for George W. Bush, an energetic champion of an immigration reform that would have opened a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants.
On immigration, the number two issue of concern after jobs for Latinos, according to polls, Romney painted himself into an anti-immigrant corner during the Republican primary debates which often looked like a competition on who sounded toughest.
Both Romney and Ryan oppose the proposed Dream Act, stalled legislation that would grant conditional permanent residence to illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.
Obama has not endeared himself to Latinos on immigration either. First, he broke a campaign promise that he would produce a comprehensive immigration bill in his first year in office. Then, he allowed mass deportations of illegal immigrants on an unprecedented scale. The deportations, an average of around 400,000 a year, resulted in the separation of thousands of children born in the United States (and therefore citizens) from their undocumented parents.
But the president, clearly with an eye on the elections, announced in June that his administration would stop deporting illegal immigrants who entered the country as children. Under an executive order, people who entered the United States under the age of 16 are eligible for two-year work permits if they meet certain conditions.
How that move will translate into additional votes will be known on November 6. Those affected -- an estimated 800,000 -- cannot vote but friends and family who are citizens can. They are not likely to cast their ballot for the Romney/Ryan ticket.