Editor's note: Roland S. Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."
(CNN) -- While the media's political high priests have been going gaga about Rep. Michele Bachmann's lying about the effects of the HPV vaccine, and Gov. Rick Perry's cozy role with pharmaceutical giant, Merck, the biggest issue coming out the CNN/Tea Party Express debate has been virtually ignored.
On Monday, a basic question about what the GOP should do to get Latinos to appeal to their party literally turned into a vicious discussion about building a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border, how the DREAM Act is a horrible piece of legislation, and the typical Republican talking points about how bad illegal immigration is for the country.
Remember, the question had nothing to do with confronting illegal immigration. It was a softball question that any amateur politician could have answered in their sleep. About the only one who looked like a sane human being was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who defended his efforts to provide state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, a position that was met with resistance from the other candidates and the tea party audience.
Whether it was a foaming-at-the-mouth Rick Santorum or a pouncing Bachmann, what every candidate on that stage should have said is that Latinos should be attracted to the GOP for the same reason as white voters. The common issues of a good education, low crime, a chance to live the American Dream cut across every age, race, gender and ethnicity.
But when the GOP hears Latinos, it's as if something clicks that says, "Oh, yeah! Illegal immigrants!"
There is no doubt that the ignoring of the original question showed the true intentions of the Republicans on the stage, and you would have thought that Democrats would have seized on the moment, hitting Hispanic radio and TV over the next few days, and driving home the point of a Republican Party that is hostile to Latinos.
Instead, they focused on the gaffes of Bachmann and Perry, missing a chance to hone in on a group of voters that President Barack Obama desperately needs to win re-election, especially in the Western states.
What this revealed is that when it comes to appealing to Latinos, the nation's largest minority group, the mind of a lot of Republicans diverts to a default position that is more negative than positive. It reminds of a group of Black Republicans in Illinois that met with party leaders about appealing to African-American voters. When they finished their strong presentation, the first statement they heard was, "We are not going to support welfare."
They ignored the data on school choice, economic empowerment zones and religious issues. For the largely white Republican leadership, they viewed black outreach as being all about welfare.
To get some perspective on the importance of the Latino vote, I reached out to Matt Barreto, a professor at the University of Washington, and a partner with Latino Decisions, a polling firm that works with Pacific Market Research.
"In order to win the presidency in 2012, the Republican challenger is going to need to carry 40% or more of the Latino vote nationally. However most candidates in the Republican field seem to be doing everything they can to run away from Latino voters as they court the conservative Tea Party crowd," Barreto told me. "As they currently stand, the Republican field has absolutely no strategy to connect, outreach, or appeal to Latino voters, which polling numbers back up.
"In the August 2011 impreMedia/Latino Decisions tracking poll, 45% of Latinos said Republicans don't care about the Latino community; 27% said Republicans were outright hostile to Latinos; and just 18% said Republicans were doing a good job connecting with Latino voters. Likewise, there doesn't seem to be any movement in favor of voting Republican among Latinos in 2012.
"Back in November 2010, Latino Decisions reported that 19% of Latino voters said they would vote Republican in 2012, and in our August 2011 tracking poll, exactly 19% say they will vote Republican in 2012," Barreto said.
"The Republican candidates face a considerable gap of 20 points with the Latino electorate if they have any hope of winning states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico which all flipped red-to-blue in 2008."
That would sound like good news for Democrats, but Barreto said they, too, have problems.
"If the Republicans have a weakness in reaching out to Latinos, the Democrats are currently not exploiting that," Barreto said. "The DNC and the Obama re-election campaign have, so far, done very little public outreach on either Spanish or English language TV. While things may be happening behind the scenes, connecting with average voters takes targeted outreach, and so far that doesn't seem to be happening.
"While the Democrats rate much higher than Republicans, just 43% of Latinos say the Dems are doing a good job of reaching out to their community, and when it comes to voting in 2012, just 38% of Latinos are certain to vote for Obama, with an additional 16% saying maybe. Rather than waiting until October 2012 to make a mad dash for the Latino vote, both parties need to start now by talking to Latino voters, and whoever takes this seriously in 2011 will reap the benefits in 2012."
Obama is clearly in a better position to attract a sizable share of the Latino vote, which will be a crucial cog in his re-election effort. If the GOP wants to actually win, they are going to have to become more than just a Southern, white party. The Democrats clearly have a lock on the black vote and the GOP won't waste any resources on trying to crack. Which leaves their opportunities for growth with Latino voters.
But after listening to Monday's debate, the current crop of GOP candidates mostly showed that if the topic isn't illegal immigration, they have no plans to appeal to Latino voters. And that's a position they could come to regret come November 2012.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin