GWEN IFILL: Along the campaign trail, Democrats and Republicans take note of the census numbers and plot a new path to victory.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Soy Barack Obama y apruebo este mensaje.
GWEN IFILL: It's not a coincidence that President Obama has begun speaking Spanish. As the general election campaign takes shape, Democrats and Republican Mitt Romney are competing for the support of the nation's fastest growing demographic group, Latino voters.
The NewsHour's Vote 2012 Map Center found, in 2008, Hispanics represented large percentages of voters across the Southwest and Florida. But the map is much bigger than that. Both campaigns are competing heatedly in at least three critical swing states: Nevada, Colorado, and Florida.
Latinos overall made up 16 percent of the population in 2008, but 9 percent of the voters. And they chose Mr. Obama over John McCain by more than 2-1. Seeking to nail down that edge, the Obama campaign launched a series of new Spanish-language ads today.
But the GOP is also in the hunt. The Republican National Committee appointed Hispanic outreach directors in all those states this week, as well as in Virginia, New Mexico, and North Carolina.
GWEN IFILL: Romney launched his appeal in Florida during January's Republican primary. This ad was voiced by Romney's son Craig.
MITT ROMNEY (R): Soy Mitt Romney y apruebo este mensaje. Muchas gracias.
GWEN IFILL: But the presumptive Republican nominee has a significant gap to close. A Pew Research Center poll released this week showed the president leading Romney 67 percent to 27 percent among Hispanics.
Until now, much of the debate has centered on immigration issues, but both sides are focusing on the economy and on education, with the Obama campaign highlighting support for Pell Grants that helped nearly two million Hispanic students attend college, and Romney expressing mild support for Sen. Marco Rubio's version of the DREAM Act, which would allow children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally.
During the primary campaign, Romney pledged to veto another version of the bill that granted citizenship.
For more now on the intense competition for Hispanic voters from coast to coast, we are joined by representatives from both major parties, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Bettina Inclan, director of Hispanic outreach for the Republican National Committee.
Senator, start by telling us how critical the Latino vote is this year.
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: Well, I think as it was four years ago, the Latino vote is critical in some of the key states that will be battleground states that you previewed, some of them, but also in states that people may not think of as battleground states in terms of Latinos, but Virginia, North Carolina.
This is an all-out effort by the Obama campaign to reconnect with Latino voters, to remind them what's important in this election, what's at stake for them, to talk about an administration that has worked hard, from making health care affordable for nine million Latinos who didn't have health care, to looking at changing the economic realities of Latinos in the country, over $800 million in the president's Small Business Jobs Act that went to Hispanic-owned businesses, to changing the realities of where we were in the disaster -- economic disaster we were left in 2008, and having a Hispanic unemployment drop dramatically.
Still more work to do, but moving in the right direction. And so it's going to be a critical vote in this election and one that the president enjoys an advantage, but is not taking for granted by any stretch of the imagination.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Inclan, obviously, Republicans aren't taking it for granted either. How important is it? And what are the issues which you hope will drive Latino voters to switch allegiances this time around?
BETTINA INCLAN, Republican National Committee: Yes, the Latino vote, the Hispanic vote, is very important.
And Sen. Menendez talks about how -- especially to make key constituencies in major swing vote -- in swing states. We have hired six state directors, in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. And we will be having a national outreach program to connect with even more voters across the country.
The number-one issue is going to be the economy. And we -- he mentioned a little bit the unemployment for the Hispanic community is unacceptable. It's two points higher than the national average. There's more Hispanic children living in poverty than ever before.
And these economic issues are really personal and really emotional for Hispanic families across the country who just want to achieve the American dream, but under this administration, it's become a lot harder.
GWEN IFILL: Personal and emotional enough that voters could switch allegiance this year?
BETTINA INCLAN: It's the number-one issue. Poll after poll, the economy and jobs, like every other American, it's the number one issue for -- how more personal can it be if you can't figure out how to feed your family?
GWEN IFILL: Sen. Menendez, today, on a conference call where you talked about this new outreach, you said the Republicans were guilty of selling snake oil to Hispanic Americans. What did you mean by that?
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, Gwen, look, look at the Republican presidential debates, and all you have to do is listen to the words of Governor Romney, Governor Romney, who opposes the DREAM Act, an opportunity for young people who were brought to this country through no choice of their own to realize their dream of America, the only country they know, the only country they pledge allegiance to each and every day of their lives, a governor who talks about self-deportation.
Gov. Romney's history in taking companies, breaking them apart, large numbers of people unemployed as a result, bringing them into bankruptcy, that's not going to get Latinos employed. The reality is, is that Latinos know who stands on their side. That's why the Univision/ABC poll done earlier, a couple months ago, with a well-respected Hispanic polling firm showed that, in fact, Latinos know who created this crisis, George Bush and Republicans.
They understand very clearly what health care means to them. Sixty percent believe the government should ultimately guarantee health care; 57 percent of them do not want to see the president's Affordable Care Act repealed. Well, when Governor Romney talks about repealing Obamacare, it goes very -- right in the face of this community.
GWEN IFILL: Let me -- let me allow Ms. Inclan's response to that.
BETTINA INCLAN: Well. . .
GWEN IFILL: There was a lot there.
BETTINA INCLAN: There was a lot.
And the reality is, when we look at this election, it's really early on. A lot can happen. But when you talk about the differences between this president and the Republicans, it's stark. And we're going to -- what we have seen is also so many Hispanics are disappointed with this administration, not only because of the economy, but for -- this president didn't keep promises, his promises.
He promised that he would pass immigration reform within his first year. He didn't make that a priority, even though he had filibuster-proof in the Senate and in the Congress, had complete control of Congress, never even proposed reform. And people are disappointed.
A lot of Hispanics have left their countries to aspire to the American dream here, hoping that we'd have -- with so much hope, and then you have a candidate who keeps on making promises to the Hispanic community and doesn't accomplish. . .
GWEN IFILL: Mitt Romney said in a -- he was overheard saying at a fund-raiser this week that if the Republicans cannot win the Hispanic vote this time around, "It spells doom for us," he said.
Do you agree with that, and what do you think that was about?
BETTINA INCLAN: I think that Mitt Romney and all the Republicans and we at the Republican National Committee believe and comprehend and completely internalize that the Hispanic vote is really important.
These Hispanics are an integral part of this society in America. And it's with their support -- and they're growing each and everyday. I myself am Hispanic. And we know how important it is to get them engaged in the electoral process. There's a lot of Hispanics, Republicans, Democrat, independent, who are just not engaged.
And what we're trying to do here at the Republican Party is get more of them to talk about the issues, get them more involved, and increase Hispanic voter turnout, and increase it for the Republican Party.
GWEN IFILL: Senator, we do run the danger of talking about Hispanics as a monolithic voting bloc. Are there different issues that drive different segments of the population?
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, of course the community is not monolithic, but there are certain overarching issues that I think are cross-cutting throughout the entire Hispanic community.
And, certainly, the community understands who got them into the economic predicament that we are getting them out of, from a high watermark of 13 percent unemployment down to 10 percent. We have got to do better. But they don't want to go back to the policies that created the economic crisis that put them in that rate of unemployment.
GWEN IFILL: How about. . .
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: They don't want to go back to policies -- I know that my colleague here on this program said that the president didn't follow promises.
The reality is, is that if we didn't have a near depression, immigration reform would have been accomplished in the first two years. And if Republicans didn't insist on a filibuster-proof vote, 60 votes in the United States Senate, we would have the DREAM Act passed, which passed with a majority of votes, all Democratic votes, and we would have comprehensive reform because we'd only need to get 51 votes.
So all they have to do is not on insist on a filibuster amount and we could make progress on those issues. It's Republicans each and every time that have been the bar to both immigration reform and who created the economic crisis for, which Latinos disproportionately suffered.
GWEN IFILL: Senator, both you and Bettina Inclan here, both say the economy is the number-one issue for Latinos, as well as for every other group in this country. And yet we keep returning to this argument about immigration reform.
Is it possible to have this -- make this pitch for these voters, for this voting bloc, and ever get past that argument?
BETTINA INCLAN: Of course. Immigration is an important issue, but we see the economy and jobs as incredibly important.
This president has to be held accountable for what he has done. He's been in office for three years promising that he would change the economy, do lots of great things, that even knowing what he was inheriting, as he likes to say, he was going to turn things around. We have given him a try. He's failed. He's failed on his promises.
And we are going -- again, economy and jobs are the number-one issue, and that's what's going to get people out to vote. And that's what's people -- we have talked about it. It's very emotional. When you can't figure out how you are going to pay your bills, that's an emotional issue.
GWEN IFILL: Sen. Robert Menendez, and Bettina Inclan from the Republican National Committee, thank you both very much.
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Thank you.