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Mitt Romney, the first Mexican-American president?

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Charles Dharapak/AP

(Read caption) Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at Paramount Printing in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday.

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Surely, the question from the anchor of a Spanish-language network to Mitt Romney was at least partly tongue-in-cheek:

Considering that Mr. Romney's father was born in Mexico, would that allow the candidate to claim a Mexican-American heritage and dub himself the first Hispanic president, asked Jorge Ramos of Univision TV.

Predictably, Romney laughed it off. 

“I would love to be able to convince people of that, particularly in a Florida primary,” where Cuban-American voters could play a decisive role, Romney said. “I think that might be disingenuous on my part.”

But the question was an interesting one, not least because it was asked by a Hispanic news outlet. True, the elder Romney, whose parents were missionaries, was not a Mexican citizen and left Mexico at age 5. Romney the candidate doesn't even speak Spanish.

His son does, however – and fluently, having spent time in Chile as a Mormon missionary. He has even narrated Spanish-language ads for his father and addressed crowds by his dad’s side on the campaign trail in Florida. And the Romney clan does have that connection to their patriarch's birthplace in Chihuahua, Mexico.

So does it amount to anything at all for Romney and the Latino vote?

“Absolutely,” says Charles Dunn, author of “The Presidency in the 21st Century.”

If a candidate has a connection to another people and culture, he says, “he should use it to the greatest effect,” and Romney's background means he has a story to tell. 

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Americans love a story well told, he notes, “and this is the tale of his own father’s beginning and his love for the Mexican people and their culture.”

Other presidents have used family connections to their benefit, notably John F. Kennedy though his wife. “He made the effort to speak German, and his own wife, Jackie, spoke French, which was a great plus for him,” he says. “Romney’s story will play well in certain parts of the country.”

But a worldly display can cut both ways. Just look at the recent swipe by the Newt Gingrich campaign at Romney for speaking French, says Jim Broussard, professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.  

Similarly, most analysts agree that the decision by John Huntsman Jr. to speak Mandarin during a debate did not help him, because as one blogger noted, it made him seem somehow “un-American.”

Playing to Latinos could also be a problem, particularly for Republicans, since it often leads to the issue of illegal immigration. In hard economic times, “immigrants become a popular scapegoat,” portrayed as taking away scarce American jobs, says Catherine Wilson, a political scientist at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

This makes the question of whether to create a video clip in another language tricky, she adds.  

But Latinos are an integral part of the American culture and political landscape, and some will be open to Romney's candidacy, says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University and a political commentator for CNN Español.  

In the end, Latinos will “probably make their decision on electability as much as anything else,” he says.

Given that, it doesn’t hurt for Romney to play every card he has. “All he has to say is that his father was born in Mexico,” he says. “That’s pretty good right there. What it says to Hispanics is that he may be more sensitive to their issues because of that.”

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