Delivering a fiery speech to a Hispanic civil rights group, Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged Latino activists to block GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney from winning the White House, arguing that Republicans want to protect the rich and erode the rights of immigrants and minorities.
Biden praised the National Council of La Raza for joining the decades-long fight to ensure civil rights and voting rights. And he decried efforts in some states to impose new ID and other ballot box requirements.
"They're at it again in other ways," Biden said. "The fight we face today is even more consequential."
Playing the role of President Barack Obama's election-year attack dog, Biden said the stakes in the 2012 presidential race are high and the outcome will determine whether America moves forward or backward.
"I honestly believe this is a fight for the heart and soul of America," Biden told 1,600 people at the four-day conference's closing lunch at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. "This is your moment. This is a moment for your community. Don't tell me you're not ready. We need your help and we need it now."
The Latino vote is key to Obama's hopes for re-election in states such as Nevada, where about 15 percent of the electorate is Hispanic. Romney is trying to eat into that support by arguing that Latinos are suffering worse economic pain under Obama with their unemployment rate several points higher than the national average.
ROMNEY CAMP SENDS ADVOCATE
The Romney campaign on Tuesday sent Hector Barreto, the former administrator of the Small Business Administration, to the conference to defend the GOP candidate. Barreto is co-chair of the steering committee for Juntos Con Romney, a group of Hispanic leaders who are "together with Romney" to back him for president.
Barreto argued that Hispanics' lives aren't getting any better and that Romney could better fix the economy.
"We have now had 41 straight months of unemployment above 8 percent," Barreto said in a statement. "For our Hispanic community, the situation is even more precarious, with the unemployment rate stuck at 11 percent and for our youth between ages of 16 and 19 at a staggering 31 percent."
Biden acknowledged the growing Latino power, saying they make up 16 percent of the national population. He spent much of his 33-minute speech making the case that Romney and Republicans aren't friendly to hard-working immigrants, but fear them instead. The vice president compared today's GOP attitudes to the xenophobia his Irish immigrant ancestors experienced in the 1800s when they first arrived here.
"No Irish allowed. No Irish need apply," Biden said. "It is not new in American politics."
BIDEN BLASTS ROMNEY ON TAX RETURNS
Biden also pounded Romney on a personal level. He criticized him for not releasing his tax returns and suggested the GOP candidate has something to hide because he has offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.
Romney has released only one year's worth of tax returns in contrast to 12 years his father, George, released when he ran for the White House in 1968, Biden said in a charge the Obama campaign has used before.
He said Romney is "making a lie of the old adage, 'Like father, like son.' "
"Mitt Romney wants you to show your papers, but he won't show us his," Biden said to loud and sustained applause. "So many questions."
The jab was a reference to an Arizona law that allows police to ask people for proof they're in the United States legally, a "show me your papers provision" the U.S. Supreme Court upheld while striking down most of the law.
IMMIGRATION LAWS HOT TOPICS
Biden mocked Romney for once praising the Arizona law as a "model" for the country and for saying he wished the Supreme Court had given more latitude to the states on immigration issues, not less.
"He's not a bad man," Biden said of Romney. "He's a decent family man. But he has a fundamentally different view of the America I envision and the president envisions."
Both Obama and Romney were invited to address the group. Biden accepted while Romney sent a Hispanic surrogate earlier in the week who wasn't given a speaking role, apparently because of scheduling issues.
During the four-day conference, voter disenfranchisement and anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and Alabama were hot topics, including among adult children who came to the United States illegally with their parents and grew up here. Obama last month ordered authorities not to deport them and offered two-year work visas instead.
Biden criticized Romney for opposing the DREAM Act, legislation Obama supports that would give those young immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship if they attend college or join the U.S. military.
"There are voices among us who fear your inclusion. This is not new," Biden said. "There have always been fights between the voices of inclusion and the voices of exclusion. Between those pushing us forward and those who keep pulling us back."
Biden warned that if Romney is elected, he could appoint high court justices who might be hostile to Hispanics. Now, the nine-member Supreme Court is narrowly divided, leaning conservative despite two Obama appointees, including Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to sit on the high court.
"Imagine what the Supreme Court will look like after four years of Governor Romney," Biden said, lowering his voice for effect. "Imagine what it will act like. Imagine what it will mean for civil rights, voting rights, and so much we have fought so hard for."
Biden suggested that a Romney administration might uphold laws critics say are meant to suppress minority voters, who tend to cast their ballots for Democrats rather than Republicans.
"Imagine a Justice Department that supports, rather than challenges, continued efforts to suppress the right to vote," he said.
On economic issues, Biden contrasted Romney's support for continuing the Bush-era tax cuts with Obama's new call to continue them only for Americans making $250,000 a year or less.
"This is a man whose idea of tax reform is to maintain the Bush tax cut for the very wealthy," Biden said.
He said it wasn't fair for the middle class and poor to suffer from what he characterized as the policies of the Bush administration that caused the deepest recession since the Great Depression.
BIDEN CONTRASTS RICH VS. POOR
"Wealthy people are just as patriotic as poor people, but nothing has been asked of them to get you out of this god-awful hole," Biden said.
In contrast, Biden accused Romney of backing budget plans that would continue tax breaks for the rich while slashing Medicaid and education programs for the poor.
"The impact on the Hispanic community would be devastating and the effects would last a generation," Biden said.
Romney argues that not extending the Bush tax cuts would harm small businesses and an economic recovery.
"What the president is proposing is therefore a massive tax increase on job creators and on small business," Romney has said. "Small businesses are overwhelmingly being taxed not at a corporate rate, but at the individual tax rate. So successful small businesses will see their taxes go up dramatically and that will kill jobs. That will be another kick in the gut to the middle class in America."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal. com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.