Updated at: 02/09/2013 9:38 AM
By CHARLES BABINGTON
(AP) WASHINGTON - The Republican Party’s problems with minority voters have preoccupied strategists since November, and it’s possible those difficulties will persist or worsen.
But an opening for marked improvements in GOP-minority relations may be at hand, or at least close by.
Republican leaders would have to make some timely decisions and get a few breaks, which campaign consultants don’t rule out.
The party desperately needs to draw more support from Latinos, a fast-growing sector that gave President Barack Obama 71 percent of its vote last fall. Two big opportunities now present themselves.
If Republican lawmakers allow far-reaching immigration changes to become law, even if most of them vote against it, the nettlesome issue might fade from political headlines and perhaps ease anti-GOP feelings among Hispanics. If Republicans in 2016 nominate a Latino for president _ say Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida _ it’s possible that millions of Hispanic voters would back him.
Black voters appear likely to keep supporting Democrats in overwhelming numbers, but not necessarily the 93 percent Obama, the first black president, drew in November. Even a slight GOP inroad among blacks might swing a state or two in a close 2016 presidential contest.
There are no minorities among the leading Democratic contenders for now, and black voters might not turn out as they did for the history-making Obama in 2008 and 2012. On a symbolic level at least, the presence of black Republican Tim Scott in the Senate bolsters the argument that it’s not outlandish for blacks to be prominent Republicans. The former South Carolina congressman was appointed in December, but he hopes to win a full six-year term next year in what could be an attention-grabbing race.
That’s a lot of "ifs," of course.
Some campaign strategists think it’s just as likely that Republicans will worsen their standing among minorities in the coming months and years ahead. That’s especially true if congressional Republicans block Obama’s bid to grant a way to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
But the scenario of significant GOP improvements among Hispanic and black voters is "not far-fetched at all," said former Republican House aide John Feehery. "Passing immigration reform is the first step," he said. "From there, build coalitions predicated on making these communities more prosperous, with better, more effective spokespeople like Rubio and Scott. I think it can happen."
Republican pollster Steve Lombardo is dubious. He labels the GOP good-news scenario as "unlikely, but not impossible."
"It will take three or four singular events of this type that, when put together, send a signal to voters that this is not your father’s Republican Party," Lombardo said.
Republicans must decide soon how to handle immigration, an emotional issue that has divided both political parties for years. Many conservatives, who make up the GOP base, strongly oppose legalized status for illegal immigrants, even for those who have lived and worked in this country for years.
House Republicans are struggling with possible compromises, which might include eventual legal residency for such immigrants, but not citizenship. Obama supporters say that’s an unworkable solution.
Many Republicans hope Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, can lead their party out of the immigration jam. He backs a plan that could lead to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but only after more stringent conditions, including a high level of border security.
Some Republicans also are pushing Rubio for president. His candidacy might tug Hispanic emotions in many directions, given his heritage and strong tea party ties.
Democratic strategist Doug Thornell says that if Republicans are to attract a bigger share of Hispanic and black voters, they must do more than nominate a Cuban-American and grudgingly let an immigration overhaul occur.
Republicans "have no roots or connections in either community," Thornell said. He said minority voters associate Republicans with hard-right firebrands such as Rush Limbaugh, and heard GOP presidential candidates in 2012 talk of "self-deportation" and other terms that some felt were denigrating to Hispanics in general.
"It’s shortsighted to believe that if immigration reform is done, somehow Republicans are going to cleanse themselves of openly hostile language that has been directed at Hispanics," Thornell said. Moreover, he said, blacks and Hispanics were deeply offended by Republican-led efforts to limit voting opportunities in Florida and other states.
A recent Time magazine cover dubbed Rubio the "Republican Savior." Even Rubio, however, plays down the potential for an immigration overhaul to heal the party’s ailments.
"If anyone is under the illusion that suddenly our percentage of Hispanic voters will double, let me dissuade them," Rubio told the magazine. Many Hispanic Americans, he said, "have bought into the lie the left is putting out there that because we want to enforce immigration laws, we’re not welcoming."
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee who did slightly better among Latino voters than 2012 nominee Mitt Romney did, says Hispanics pose a big challenge and opportunity for Republicans.
"We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons," McCain recently told ABC’s "This Week."
Thornell says Republicans face "a long-term project" to attract Hispanics to their side, and he doubts they’ll succeed. If they agree to immigration law changes for political reasons, Thornell said, "it’ll look like pandering."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)