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Hispanic conservatives keep close eye on Republican debate

By Gustavo Valdes, CNN
  • Many say they hope candidates will focus on economic problems
  • Some say immigration could sway their votes in the next election
  • Pew Hispanic Center: People of Hispanic origin make up about 9% of the electorate
  • Republican leaders have courted Latino voters

(CNN) -- As Republicans gear up for Monday's presidential debate in New Hampshire, some conservative Hispanics say they'll be watching closely -- and they're hoping to see more than the current field of candidates has offered so far.

"There are no good strong candidates that I see, unless (former Florida Gov.) Jeb Bush enters the race," said DeeDee Garcia Blase, who founded the Somos Republicans conservative Hispanic organization. Now, she heads the Tequila Party, a national organization aimed at galvanizing Hispanic voters on both sides of the political spectrum.

San Francisco political consultant Alex Gonzalez, who has also joined the Tequila Party, said he hopes to support a Republican candidate who isn't intimidated by the Tea Party and has concrete plans for improving the nation's economy.

"As a conservative, though social issues are important, our economic woes demand immediate attention, and thus, I hope the debate will be about the economic solutions for our nation," he said.

The U.S. Hispanic population grew 43% in 10 years between 2000 and 2010 -- four times faster than the total U.S. population -- according to figures from the 2010 census. But currently, people of Hispanic origin make up only about 9% of the eligible electorate, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Still, Hispanics were one of the most sought-after voting groups in the 2008 presidential election, and analysts say they could play a significant role in 2012.

That possibility is not lost on GOP officials, who hosted a Hispanic leadership conference in Florida earlier this year aimed at courting voters.

"This is not about politics, this is about the conservative cause," Jeb Bush told a crowd at the January meeting. "And if you look over the horizon over the next 10 to 20 years ... without the active involvement of Hispanics, we will not be the governing philosophy of our country."

In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll from July of last year, 57% of Hispanics said Democrats agreed on issues that Hispanics care about. Only 32% of that group felt the same about Republicans. And in that same poll, 56% of Hispanics said the GOP is doing a bad job of reaching out to African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.

Hispanic political leaders stress that immigration isn't the only issue driving voters to the polls, and that it's impossible to define such a large, diverse group with a single issue.

Angel Zuniga Martinez, an insurance broker from Knoxville, Tennessee, said Hispanic voters' interests parallel those of the electorate in general.

"The reality is that we need job creation and economic growth," he said. "We all need to come together as a community, regardless of creed or color."

In a November poll conducted by the National Council of La Raza, Latinos surveyed said the number one issue affecting them was the economy and jobs.

The unemployment for Latinos in May was 11.5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about two percentage points above the national average.

Carlos Garcia, a businessman from Chattanooga, Tennessee, said he hoped candidates would discuss how to help struggling small businesses.

"Strong small businesses create jobs, more jobs create more spending," he said, "and that will help improve the economy."

But even if immigration is not their top priority, some voters say it's an issue that could sway their vote in the next election.

Maria de Lourdes Gonzalez Cosio, director of the Hispanic apostolate of the Roman Catholic diocese in Knoxville, said she feels ashamed to be a Republican every time she hears a Republican candidate endorse anti-immigration laws.

"I would like the candidates to talk about the hostility GOP legislators have towards immigrants," Garcia Blase said. "I see hypocrisy where GOP state legislators are implementing anti-immigrant laws all over the place, yet, they really don't want the president to take care of immigration reform that will benefit the American economy. I want to know how they will fix the broken immigration system."