TAMPA, Fla. -- If you're like most Americans, you were taught that it's best to avoid talking about religion and politics in public.
Not so if you grew up in a Hispanic community, where any trip to the mercado or peluqueria was liable to include a discussion of politics. Both the Romney and Obama campaigns are going to have to do a lot more than translate campaign rhetoric into Spanish if they want to attract Latino voters; they're going to have to appeal to cultural differences.
"When I lived in Venezuela, you could get on an elevator with five strangers and before you got to your floor you would know exactly how those people are going to vote and why," said Jose Urdaneta, a Lancaster City councilman and a member of Pennsylvania Latinos for Obama, in a telephone interview. "It's a complete contrast to politics here. ... We were taught that politics is something you should talk about; you should have an opinion."
Mailers and television commercials aren't enough for Latino voters who expect personal interaction and answers to questions about government policy.
And both campaigns need to do a better job reaching out to Latinos, who make up the fastest-growing segment of the voting population, said Clarissa Martinez, director of civic engagement and immigration for the National Council of La Raza. "There's a window of opportunity for a candidate to make his case in the Hispanic community," said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, which sponsored a policy briefing in Tampa Tuesday.
In the last presidential election, 40 percent of all new voters were Hispanic, and by November, the number of Latino voters could exceed 14 million.
Some political scientists say former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's best strategy is to keep quiet because his immigration policy won't sit well with Hispanics in swing states such as Colorado, Nevada, Florida and Virginia, where the Latino population is growing.
"Because of the states in play you're not going to be talking about immigration if you're a Republican," said Rosalyn Cooperman, associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. "It's a risky thing for Romney, given the strong stance he's made on immigration."
Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, who spoke at the Hispanic Leadership Network event Tuesday, disagrees.
He told attendees that Mr. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan are true leaders who will make the country better for Latinos and all Americans.
"We do not have to run away from our moral principles to attract Latino support or any support. Instead we have to hold them up and explain where they will lead us as a nation," he told attendees.
Mr. Romney has taken a hard line on illegal immigration, advocating a high-tech border fence, creation of a national employment verification system, more funding for immigration enforcement and new fines for business owners who hire immigrants who are not in the country legally.
Some of his most forceful immigration arguments came during a January primary debate here in Tampa, where he said he would pressure illegal immigrants to "self-deport." He seems to have toned down his immigration rhetoric since it became clear he would win the party nomination.
Pennsylvania Congressman Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, said the GOP shouldn't shy away from talking about immigration.
"If we don't talk about it, enough people won't understand where we're coming from," said Mr. Barletta, who was elected on promises to work to reform immigration policy and punish employers who hire workers who are in the country illegally. It can be difficult for candidates to find a message that resonates deeply and broadly with Hispanics because they come from 23 different countries with different priorities. For example, those from Puerto Rico, who make up the largest segment of Pennsylvania's Hispanic community, are American citizens and are less interested in immigration issues than Cuban- and Mexican-Americans.
Puerto Ricans, who already are American citizens, want illegal immigrants out in order to reduce competition for entry-level jobs.
"When we move to the mainland we're competing for the same jobs. We want fairness," said Luis Rodriguez, one of 20 convention delegates from the island territory.
Nevada alternate delegate Carol Del Carlo, whose ancestors came from Spain and Mexico, supports Mr. Romney despite -- not because of -- his platform on immigration. She said it isn't realistic to expect illegal immigrants to self-deport, and she wants amnesty for those already here.
Mrs. Del Carlo supports Mr. Romney because she believes in his economic and job-creation strategies, but she opposes his position on immigration, calling it "totally unrealistic."
"Mitt Romney needs to offer a better solution. People die trying to come to this country. They're not going to volunteer to leave," she said.
A recent executive order from President Barack Obama -- meant to help young people whose parents brought them here illegally -- protects those under 30 who enroll in college or join the military. That is likely to help him with Latino voters in the election.
However, though immigration policy is important to Latino voters, it's not their top priority. Like most, they're worried about jobs.
"It's, 'How am I going to feed my family? How am I going to keep a roof over my head? How am I going to educate my children?' That's the No. 1 issue," Mrs. Korn said.
Although a spring Gallup/USA Today poll showed that only 11 percent of Hispanics identify as Republicans, the GOP shouldn't write them off, Ms. Martinez said. Hispanics are more likely than other voters to split tickets, so a strong Republican candidate can attract support even from those who identify as Democrats.
"Republicans are going to have to have a real strategy to court this community," she said. "Failing to do that and then saying, 'These voters will never vote for me,' doesn't work. You've got to give voters a reason."
The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce plans to track spending on Spanish-language campaign outreach this election season.
"This election, Latino voters have the power to exert more influence, decide more races and cast more votes than ever before, and there's no doubt that political candidates and committees are fighting to capture that vote," chamber president and CEO Javier Palomarez said.
Historically, he said, candidates have ignored the media platforms Hispanic voters use most, including Spanish-language television, radio, print and online outlets.
"Political candidates and committees know that they need Latino voters in order to win, but they have to back up their words with real action and direct communication in order to mobilize the key Hispanic communities and garner those votes," Mr. Palomarez said.
The Obama campaign is striving for face-to-face interactions at churches, community events and youth football games. Mr. Urdaneta's efforts are focused on Central Pennsylvania, where the goal is for campaign volunteers to interact with each Latino voter at least six times before Election Day.
"We want to make sure we're reaching out to them not just in their language, but in their culture," he said.
That's why campaign volunteers like Marisol Alvarez are organizing block parties in Latino neighborhoods as part of their get-out-the-vote effort.
"We have food, cake, a pinata, and people passing by stopped and we invite them to join us. It's a great way to get new people involved in the campaign and talk to them about issues in a comfortable place.
"It's a great environment for people to talk to their neighbors," said Ms. Alvarez, 48, of Allentown.
But Ms. Alvarez doesn't just organize campaign events. Rather, she incorporates campaigning into her everyday activities.
"When I'm going to the supermarket, the pharmacist, appointments -- everywhere I go -- I talk about the campaign and I always have [voter] registration forms with me," she said.
She also reminds them of a new Pennsylvania law requiring voters to bring photo identification with them to the polls. Because of the language barrier, many Hispanic voters don't know about the requirement and they aren't sure what documentation they need to get IDs.
Political scientists predict that some legal immigrants may not apply for identification cards for fear of being hassled and threatened with deportation if their paperwork isn't in order.
"They might not [want] to stick their neck out and take a chance," said Frederick Lynch, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California. "It's one more barrier for people who don't vote very much."
And it's disproportionately bad for Mr. Obama, who in an NBC/WSJ/Telemundo survey of Latino voters from late June was leading Mr. Romney by 40 points. In a more recent Quinnipiac poll Mr. Obama was leading Mr. Romney among Hispanic voters 59 percent to 30 percent.
"The polling indicates an advantage for Obama, but will the vote?" Mr. Lynch said.
The party momentarily highlighted a Hispanic delegate when officials tapped delegate Joanna M. Cruz of Montgomery County to make a motion from the floor for Mr. Ryan to be nominated as the vice presidential candidate by acclamation, skipping the need for a role call.
The Romney campaign selected her to make the motion, said Robert Gleason, Pennsylvania Republican chairman.
"She's been active with Hispanic organizations, and she is Hispanic herself," he said.
Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com or 1-703-996-9292. First Published August 29, 2012 4:00 AM