GOP looks to improve image with Hispanics

Ileana Calderon rose early Saturday to caucus with other Republicans at Rancho High School.

As a Cuban immigrant, the 65-year-old doesn't take the privileges of U.S. democracy lightly.

"When I step on this ground, I think of liberty," said Calderon, 65.

She, together with her mother, Teresa Vich, 86, and granddaughter, Sabrina Young, 14, appeared to be among the relatively few Hispanics in the crowd of about 200, despite Rancho being located in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood near Bruce Street and Owens Avenue.

Republicans have been trying to shore up support in the Hispanic community, which can swing elections in more states these days, including Nevada. But at Rancho, it was a predominantly white, older crowd.

Hispanics haven't always felt welcome in the Republican Party, which has generally taken a tough stance against illegal immigration and pushed for enforcing current laws rather than comprehensive reform.

But Calderon said you can't generalize any voting bloc by ethnicity.

"I see myself as a U.S. citizen first," she said. "I hate putting people in little groups."

Calderon supported candidate Mitt Romney in part because she believes he will "enforce the laws of this country as far as the border" is concerned.

"I came here legally," she said. "It's a different mindset. There are thousands waiting abroad to get in legally, who have followed all the steps. You should abide by the law and not cut corners."

In Nevada, Hispanics make up 26 percent of the population and were 15 percent of the electorate in 2008 and 2010.

Democrats have about a 2-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans among Hispanics in the state.

Republican President George W. Bush enjoyed strong Hispanic support nationwide in his 2004 re-election, winning 44 percent of Latino votes. Yet he failed to get Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006.

Democrats since have made huge strides in winning over more of the Hispanic community.

In 2008, President Barack Obama won the support of 67 percent of Hispanics nationwide and 74 percent in Nevada.

Obama, too, promised immigration reform but has failed, something that has hurt him among some Hispanics.

Where Republican candidates stand on the issue of illegal immigration won't make or break them for many Hispanic party members, said Tibi Ellis, a Las Vegas resident who is secretary for the Latino National Republican Coalition.

"Immigration is not the top interest for Latino voters in general," she said last week. "It's the economy."

Still, "You have to be careful," she said. "The community is not monolithic. None of the issues are important to everybody."

Ellis predicted that support for Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul would be split among Hispanic voters, despite the fact that Paul "is the only candidate who has addressed the larger Latino community in Las Vegas in public."

Paul met Wednesday morning with the influential group Hispanics in Politics, telling them he favors an easier path for legal immigration to the United States.

Gingrich met privately with local Hispanic business and community leaders on Thursday.

Calderon and Vich said the economy is their No. 1 issue this election year. So did Sabrina, who is too young to vote but tagged along with her grandmothers because she thought it would be cool to see how a caucus works.

"My family has been suffering financially," Sabrina said. "My mom lost a house."

The three all were supporting Romney, who they believe has the business and financial acumen to help stabilize the economy.

"He has the stability of character to put things in order," Calderon said.

Vich, who immigrated to the United States with her family in 1962, was praying in Spanish for Romney to win Nevada.

"I hope to God everything works out."

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at