WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 09: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) delivers a speech titled, "Is America Still an Exceptional Nation?" during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) February 9, 2012 in Washington, DC. Thousands of conservative activists are expected to attend the annual gathering in the nation's capital. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)2012 Getty Images
Latino issues are at the top of the agenda at the largest gathering of conservative politicians and activists in yet another sign of how Republicans are struggling to attract a demographic group that is critical to their electoral future.
“I’m committed, as head of the Conservative Union, that Latinos issues are going to be presented,” said Al Cardenas, a Cuban-American who is head of the American Conservative Union, the group that organizes the Conservative Political Action Conference. “We need to celebrate this diversity.”
For the first time in the conference’s history, a Latino, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, will deliver the keynote address at CPAC. Past CPAC keynote speakers include Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Allen West and Sarah Palin. The conference’s opening speaker this year will be Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“We need to commit a total immersion in the Latino community,” said Cardenas.
It’s no coincidence that Latino politicians such as Rubio, who has been at the forefront of recent immigration reform talks on Capitol Hill, are being thrust into such prominent roles this year.
“We need to showcase how widespread conservatives are in the Latino movement,” said Cardenas.
Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, believes CPAC has made a move in the right direction if it wants to attract Latino voters and their growing fundraising muscle.
"It tells me that the message of the 2012 election has been received loud and clear," said Sabato. "[This is] a good start. You gather your Latino office holders together and find out through them what their community needs and wants from politics."
The conference currently has a list of 15 Latinos participating in panels and speaking at the event, including Rubio, Cruz and Congressman Raul Labrador of Idaho.
Cardenas, a Cuban immigrant who was an Ambassador under President Ronald Reagan and headed the Republican Party in Florida, is hoping to show Latinos that, beyond some small differences, Latinos and conservatives have a lot more in common than they realize.
I’ve always said the first rule of engagement is to engage. I’ve advised those to have a presence in Latino community.
- Al Cardenas
“Latinos believe in the family fabric, our values,” said Cardenas. “Most Latinos believe government should not play a role in our everyday lives.”
Cardenas acknowledged that immigration seems to be the only issue holding Latinos back from identifying with the conservative movement, and said his party is partly to blame for lack of Latino support.
“Some of [the criticism] is deserved,” said Cardenas. “I’ve always said the first rule of engagement is to engage. I’ve advised those to have a presence in Latino community.”
But he said things could change once immigration reform pass and everyone moves on from the issue.
The Latino presence at the conference will not specifically cater to Latinos or how to get Latinos into the party. But Cardenas wants to show attendees that Latinos belong on their side of the ideological issue.
“The cool thing is that we’re going to have Latinos involved in issues that affect all of us and the community,” said Cardenas. “They need to be treated as equals and their voices need to be heard on the national issues of the day.”
He said he and CPAC want to avoid any pandering to Latinos.
“We’re not delegating Latinos to a sidebar. This is not window dressing,” Cardenas said.
Sabato believes that conservatives need to worry less about pandering and more about fixing their problems.
"I’ve listened to this pander argument before. There's an alternate description for pandering, some call it politics," said Sabato. "Republicans are struggling with something very basic. They want to stay with their principle but at the same time you can principle yourself to death."
Follow Victor Garcia on Twitter @MrVicGarcia.