ABC News’ Z. Byron Wolf Reports: President Bush spent eight years trying to woo Hispanic voters to the Republican ticket. His improvement between 2000 and 2004 with Hispanic men, in particular, is seen as a big factor in his reelection. And his lobbying in Congress for comprehensive immigration reform is directly tied to this strategy.
However, only one member of the Republican Party running to succeed Bush as president is expected to attend a major Hispanic conference this weekend in Florida.
Long-shot presidential hopeful Rep. Duncan Hunter, whose California district borders with Mexico, announced this week that he would attend the conference, the first and only Republican candidate to do so. Hunter vehemently opposes the immigration bill and wrote the legislation that raised the metal border fence, but said its important to talk to everyone about his position – even people who disagree with him.
"I am running for President to represent every citizen in this country," said Hunter in a statement Wednesday. "Why would I decline an invitation to speak at the NALEO Conference? Their invitation indicates that they want to hear my stance on all the important issues facing this country. I am pleased to have been invited. I hope to get their views and also share mine with the members."
"The importance of Latinos is only going to be amplified by the rescheduling of the primaries in the upcoming Presidential election," said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the organization holding this weekend’s Republican conference being conducted fully in English.
Vargas argues that the early primaries in states like California, Arizona and Florida, among others, mean that Hispanic voters will play an ever more important role on the national scale.
"This is the base of leadership of Latinos throughout the country. These are folks who represent cities and counties and have direct contact with the people."
But the NALEO conference comes amidst a tough immigration debate on the Senate floor — one that has pitted the President against many Republicans.
Several current and former administration officials will be at the conference, including Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a Cuban émigré recently appointed by Bush to be chairman of the Republican National Committee and Current Transportation Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Both Martinez and Gutierrez were pivotal in crafting the immigration bill.
Only Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., among the Republican presidential candidates actively supports the compromise immigration proposal. Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo has built his entire campaign around opposing what he calls the "amnesty" for illegal immigrants in the bill.
While some Republicans have cited schedule conflicts — McCain will be in Iowa despite the fact that he is withdrawing most of his campaign resources from a pivotal straw poll there later this summer — others will be a stone’s throw from the conference. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for instance, is speaking in Florida at a dinner in Broward County on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Democrats Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. , Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., former Sen. John Edwards, D.N.C., Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., will all attend the conference. That’s every Democratic presidential candidate but the longest of longshots – former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel.