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Mission Impossible

Selling the GOP to Latino voters.

In late January, on the eve of the Florida primary, Bettina Inclán, the 32-year-old head of Hispanic outreach for the Republican National Committee (RNC), appeared on Fox News opposite progressive activist Simon Rosenberg to discuss the Latino vote. To say that the deck was stacked against Inclán in this fight would be an understatement. Over the past year, the major Republican candidates have gone out of their way to make anti-immigrant sentiment a centerpiece of their campaigns. Mitt Romney has called for illegal immigrants to “self-deport” and promised to veto the DREAM Act, while Rick Santorum accused Rick Perry—who had supported a version of the DREAM Act in Texas—of trying to attract the “illegal vote.”

Inclán’s strategy during the Fox News segment seemed clear: She gamely tried to direct the conversation toward just about anything other than the GOP candidates’ views on immigration. When Rosenberg brought up Romney’s “anti-immigrant, anti-Latino” campaign, Inclán—a perky, pretty, dark-haired woman, with a confident, if slightly unpolished, presentation—smiled and responded by criticizing President Obama’s record on the economy. Later, she touted the RNC’s “new, enhanced effort to connect with Hispanics throughout this country” and provided a number Latinos could text in order to learn more. During the interview, she did not mention Romney once.

Her evasiveness testifies to the GOP’s underlying problem. For years, the Republican Party has been aware that it must attract a bigger share of the Latino vote. And four of the key swing states in this election—Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada—have large Hispanic populations. But how can a party appeal to a group toward which it is directing such harsh rhetoric? That is the dilemma Bettina Inclán will have to solve. As Rosenberg told me, “She’s got the hardest job in politics.”

INCLÁN WAS BORN in 1979 in Miami, where she lived until she was 23. Her father, a Mexican immigrant, was a school bus driver and carpenter. Her mother, a Cuban refugee, rented office space to women who were starting businesses, often enlisting the young Inclán to help. (Today, she credits the experience with making her a fiscal conservative.) According to family lore, her grandmother had fled Cuba with Inclán’s uncle and mother in the early ’60s after Soviet forces tried to kidnap Inclán’s mother. After landing in New York, the three survived for several years on welfare. Her grandfather, who stayed in Cuba, was imprisoned by the government for more than a decade after he refused a leadership position in the Communist Party. “Growing up,” Inclán told me, “I was always made very aware by my Cuban family of the importance of being politically involved.”

An internship in D.C. during college was Inclán’s first extended foray beyond Florida, and it made her aware that Latinos were still outsiders in Washington. “People would make fun of my accent,” she told me. “They would say, ‘What country are you from?’ I’d say, ‘Miami?’ But they wouldn’t give up. They’d say, ‘No, where are you from?’” After graduating with a degree in political science from Florida International University in 2003, she worked as a congressional aide to Florida Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart and then on George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. When she was only 25, Inclán was named director of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RNHA). Under her leadership, the organization, which had been in decline, extended its operations from 35 to 48 states and became a force on the Hill for Bush-backed immigration reform.

In my interviews with her, Inclán was personable and unpretentious. And she is well-liked, even by those who disagree with her politics. Alicia Menendez, her liberal counterpart on a weekly political radio show focusing on Hispanic issues, told me she had recently gone wedding dress shopping with Inclán. (Inclán became engaged around Christmastime, to a fellow GOP strategist who ran Sharron Angle’s communication team during her 2010 bid for Senate.) “I don’t think you would have caught Hannity and Colmes doing that together back in the day,” Menendez told me via e-mail. “Spoiler alert: She’s going to be [a] very beautiful bride!”

But all her competence and charm doesn’t change the difficult political situation Inclán faces. Even in the early years of Bush’s second term—when immigration reform seemed like a real possibility, with John McCain pushing a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy—Inclán encountered a good deal of vitriol. Hate mail began to arrive in her inbox, either deriding her for betraying Hispanic immigrants or telling her to “go back to Mexico.”

By the end of her tenure at the RNHA in 2007, Inclán had strong misgivings about the Republican Party. She approached her former boss, Diaz-Balart, for advice. “Do Latinos belong in the GOP?” she asked him. The congressman laid it out for her: She could leave the party or she could push for recognition from within. Inclán chose the latter. She told me she prizes being able to offer colleagues a different opinion in rooms where she is often the only Latino. Besides, she adds, “I know one hundred percent that I’m a Republican.”

Conviction aside, her party’s rhetoric has put her in an awkward position. She points out (correctly) that Hispanics rate the economy and education as more important issues than immigration; but, when the conversation does turn to immigration, she isn’t especially convincing. She attacks Obama for failing to deliver immigration reform—without mentioning that probably the biggest reason for the failure is GOP opposition. When I pointed this out, she said, “He can’t just blame all his problems on Republicans.” And, when I asked if the GOP’s hard-line approach to immigration was problematic, her easygoing demeanor hardened. “The Republican Party is a very large party, and there are a lot of different positions in the party,” she told me. “Immigration plays a role in general discussion, but, if you’re going to ask me what’s going to get people to the polls, it’s not immigration.”

It didn’t surprise me that Inclán grew brusque when pushed on her party’s immigration stance. Maybe it will be politically easier for her to talk about the issue during the general election, once a nominee is chosen and he pivots toward the center. Then again, maybe it won’t. According to Menendez, should Romney win the nomination, Inclán “will need to find a way to bring him back to the middle on immigration—which I just don’t know is going to be possible.”

Molly Redden is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 15, 2012 issue of the magazine.