Former New York mayor Giuliani dismisses the immigration bill as a "typical Washington mess." Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo is basing his long-shot campaign on fervent opposition to illegal immigration.
Still, in the end, many Hispanics are more likely to be swayed by a personal connection with a candidate than by ideology, Martinez says. That could create an opening for a Republican nominee.
"Once a candidate is identified, if that candidate is a person who can effectively represent himself to that community, we could be back in the game," he says.
Here today, where tomorrow?
Even if Democrats win back Hispanic voters in 2008, Latinos aren't likely to become the sort of reliable Democratic partisans that, say, African-Americans are. Hispanics are twice as likely as non-Hispanics to describe themselves as independents who don't "lean" to either party.
And while the GOP share of Hispanic votes overall fell sharply in the 2006 elections, some Republican candidates did well. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger carried 39% of Hispanic votes in his re-election race in California, for instance. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison won 44% for hers in Texas.
That's a signal to both parties, says Roberto Suro, director of the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center.
"You can see the difference with a constituency that doesn't budge and one that's got play in it, depending on the candidate in the race," Suro says. Vargas agrees. "It's a mistake to say that if Latinos are swinging back to the Democratic Party, they're there to stay," he says.
Frank Guerra, a San Antonio media consultant who worked on Hispanic-oriented advertising in Bush's campaigns, is preparing a report to the opening session of the NALEO convention that analyzes Hispanics as voters in the same ways that corporations analyze them as consumers.
Hispanics "are moving away from traditional brand loyalty" as more companies — and candidates — target them for their business and their votes, Guerra says. "It's very mobile," he says, "and no one owns it."