Latino Policy Conference Struggles to Draw GOP Candidates

new atmBy BETH REINHARD, WSJ

NaleoFifteen Republican active or likely presidential contenders have been invited to an event billed as the nation’s largest gathering of Latino policy makers, but few are expected to attend.

The only candidate so far confirmed to attend the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference June 17-19: Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. More than 1,200 school board members, city and county commissioners and state lawmakers are slated to participate in the conference in Las Vegas; a NALEO spokeswoman said most of the GOP candidates have cited scheduling conflicts.

NALEO is nonpartisan but has struggled to draw Republican presidential candidates, in part because it supports a policy opposed by the GOP’s conservative base: a sweeping overhaul of immigration law that would allow undocumented workers to earn citizenship.

In May, Mrs. Clinton criticized the GOP field for wanting to withhold citizenship from illegal immigrants, and she vowed to expand President Obama’s executive orders protecting many of them from deportation. The absence of most of the GOP field from the conference will give her another opening to cast Republicans as unfriendly to the rapidly growing Hispanic vote.

Most of the GOP presidential candidates emphasize tightening border security and have come out against citizenship or legal status for illegal immigrants. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, once supported a pathway to citizenship but now says that would amount to rewarding lawbreakers with amnesty. He is expected to launch his 2016 campaign next month. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another presumptive candidate who also once backed a pathway to citizenship, called that policy “extreme” and “pandering politics” last month.

“I think candidates are being careful right now about making statements on immigration in front of a Latino audience that they would have to defend for the rest of the election season,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO. “Candidates run to the extremes of their party in the primary, and that’s probably the dynamic happening now, but I hope all candidates understand that we are not a one-issue constituency.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is already a presidential candidate, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is expected to become an official candidate on June 15, have addressed NALEO before, but they are not expected to attend this year’s meeting.

Only one GOP candidate, Duncan Hunter, attended NALEO’s 2007 forum in Florida. Mitt Romney addressed the group after he had cinched the 2012 nomination, though he was criticized for failing to explain earlier remarks recommending “self-deportation” for the millions of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. He won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in that election.

The potentially anemic turnout at the NALEO convention comes at a time when the Republican field is one of the most diverse in history, including two Cuban-Americans (Mr. Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz), an African-American (Ben Carson) and a woman (Carly Fiorina).

More than a half dozen Republican contenders for the White House attended a forum in January hosted by Iowa Rep. Steve King, who has taken a hard line against illegal immigration. “Any candidate that wants to put together a comprehensive, national campaign to reach Latino voters should be coming to our conference,” Mr. Vargas added.

The group is still waiting to hear from three of Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic rivals: former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Gov.Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.

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