By Jose Serrano (staff@latinospost.com) | First Posted: Dec 30, 2015 12:56 PM EST
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(Photo : Justin Sullivan / Staff Getty Images )

Two Republican senators, each with Oval Office aspirations made possibly by their Cuban-American parents, can't win without the Latino vote.

Latinos make up a demographic historically known to sway left; they're mired this election cycle by GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump's rhetoric about undocumented immigrants and the Department of Homeland Security's unexpected, yet immense mass deportations strategy. Still, Republicans give them little reason to vote conservative, even as faith in Democratic leader Hillary Clinton wanes.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, running a distant second and third in most national GOP polls, need them to make the leap. They need to convince independent Hispanic voters that Trump's campaign is white noise; that building a wall along the United States-Mexico border isn't the answer, nor is alienating candidates who oppose it.

Rubio and Cruz need to realize immigration reform isn't the key to earning their trust.

Univision, in partnership with political research firms David Binder Research and Moore Information, recently released a study discrediting assumptions made about registered Hispanic voters age 25-54, specifically misconception about their political beliefs.

Over half of 2,860 people surveyed said they don't identify as either Democratic or Republican. Fifty-five percent don't devoutly follow a Party, and a majority of them ranked immigration well below other concerns.

Instead, they worry about finding steady work in a stable economy, receiving affordable healthcare for their families, giving their children a proper education, and protecting them from sporadic terrorist attacks and mass shootings.

Here, the glimmer of hope for the Cuban-American presidential hopefuls is in those who are "persuadable," the more than 40 percent of registered Democrats who previously supported GOP candidates.

"The fact that many Hispanic voters are entering this election season with an open mind and willing to consider candidates regardless of their party affiliation is great news for Republicans," said Bob Moore, founder of Moore Information. "There is a tremendous opportunity here for GOP candidates to speak directly with Hispanics about issues those voters care about most. The Hispanic electorate is telling us they want to hear what Republicans have to say and, if they like what they hear, are ready to support them."

Marco Rubio Profile 

Rubio's parents married in Cuba and immigrated to the U.S. in 1956, becoming naturalized citizens 19 years later. As the 44-year-old disclosed in his 2012 book, "An American Son," they got by as blue collar, working-class citizens; his dad a bartender and his mom a maid.

It's a story the Miami native rehashes on campaign stops and in Republican presidential primary debates. One he hopes resonates with anyone who listens.

On Dec. 5, Rubio mingled with Little Havana residents for the first time since announcing his candidacy.

Rubio held a fundraiser in West Miami dubbed the "Where It All Began" breakfast at the Rebeca Sosa Multipurpose facility, located blocks from his home. It wasn't inclusive; while not mandatory, $20 donations were suggested. Anyone who attended grubbed on empanadas, croquetas - both baked pastries stuffed with meat - and Cuban coffee.

"Unless you go to the grocery store on Sunday, you're gonna be seeing less of me than you have in the past," Rubio said, explaining he would be preparing for caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

He continued, "The early part of March, you're gonna start to see us again because I hope and I pray, God willing, that if we can continue to grow our campaign when we come here for the 15th of March. Perhaps on that night, in Florida, this party will be able to nominate someone for the presidency."

Ted Cruz Profile

Cruz, whose father fled Cuba in the mid-1950s, isn't as intimate with Latino voters. Born Rafael Edward, teenage Cruz changed his name to Ted because family-given nicknames - Rafaelio and Felito - sounded like "every major corn chip on the market," he wrote in his 2015 autobiography, "A Time for Truth."

He's more open about being born in Calgary, Canada than his Latino upbringing. An immigrant, in his own right, Cruz can still chase his American Dream despite proposing laws that could limit others.

"There's seven billion people on the face of the planet, and an awful lot of them would like to come here. Now if they want to come here legally and follow the law, great. You and I both come from immigrant families who followed the law," Cruz said in an August interview with Florida political website Shark Tank.

He added, "If we nominate a candidate who's been a vigorous, vocal, and aggressive advocate of amnesty, then the Republican candidate won't stand up and challenge Hillary Clinton on amnesty, and certainly won't do so effectively. Because anyone who tries to do so, the response will be: Gosh, just a couple of years ago, before you were running for president, you agreed with me [that] we should grant amnesty."

Some believe he purposefully downplays his roots in pandering to hard-right conservatives because many, unequivocally, oppose citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The Texas senator has a Spanish-language campaign website, and he's released Spanish ads, but his grasp of the language is minimal.

Overseeing a state with over 10 million Latinos, Cruz hasn't embraced the culture. He doesn't serve empanadas at campaign rallies, or meet-and-greets in East End, one of Houston's larger Latino neighborhoods and near where Cruz attended high school.

He doesn't need to.

Cruz isn't Rubio. Rubio isn't Cruz. What works for one won't work for the other.

How They Can Win the Latino Vote

Rubio doesn't support comprehensive immigration reform, not after backlash received for supporting the "Gang of Eight" amnesty bill two years ago. Cruz reminds Republicans of Rubio's role at every turn, questioning whether a true conservative would sign bipartisan legislation alongside President Obama.

Rubio, for his part, cites Cruz's plan to grant undocumented immigrants legal status but not citizenship. Similar, Cruz has distanced himself from it, calling the amendment a "poison pill."

Based on findings from the David Binder Research and Moore Information survey, all of this won't matter much to Latino voters, not as much as presidential candidates believe, anyway.

What Rubio can do to win the GOP nomination is prove that he is more trustworthy than Trump, Clinton, or Cruz. He must move on from the 2013 "Gang of Eight" bill by expressing why a conservative lawmaker would break party lines, and how his flip-flop helps Latinos economically.

Cruz can't show that kind of avidity without being met with skepticism. His campaign is about protecting U.S. citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. The 45-year-old has pitched building a wall along the border, and he does support banning some - not all - Muslims from entering the country, but he does it with Americans' interests in mind.

When Latinos ranked the economy, health care, education, national security, and immigration as their top concerns in level of importance, they did so as an afterthought to most Republican candidates.

None of the 12 GOP debates involve Spanish-speaking audiences. The only chance of it happening fell through when the Republican National Committee canceled a planned debate with Telemundo. When referring to Latinos, candidates often start with immigration, as if that's the only issue that matters to them.

Rubio and Cruz must make Latinos, the fastest-growing voting group in the U.S., feel like they're important in a way that Clinton and Trump can't. Rubio's on the right track with intimate rallies.

Cruz can go about it another way, by comparing his father's arduous plight from Cuba to those of the Mexicans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans, and other Central American immigrants who have gained legal status. Cruz, like many first, second, and third generation people today, can prove that celebrating one's heritage doesn't mean speaking fluent Spanish, nor does it mean allowing undocumented individuals to enter freely.

The key is in informing Latino voters. Without their support, a Clinton-Trump run-off is all but assured.

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