To win November's election, "it would be helpful to be Latino," Mitt Romney joked at a private fundraiser just over a week before he secured the Republican presidential nomination.
But would it?
The secretly videotaped remark has now gone viral along with other comments Romney made to a well-heeled Florida crowd of supporters in May. To many, it reflected Republican fears of not being able to appeal to a growing Latino electorate and the idea, among some conservatives, that whiteness is a disadvantage.
"The Romney comment was not only offensive, it was factually untrue," said Matt Barreto, an opinion pollster who wrote a book about Latino candidates. "There is a long history of published research showing Latino candidates face more discrimination and racially polarized voting than any white candidate ever has."
Also offended was Oakland activist Favianna Rodriguez, who plans to make sure Romney and the Latino electorate don't forget the insult.
"It just really portrays Latino voters as somehow being stupid, as wanting to vote for a candidate just because they might appeal to their Latino identity," said Rodriguez, founder of the Presente.org activist network. "To imply that Latino voters would be more willing to vote for him because he's Mexican is ridiculous."
Latinos "care about the economy, we care about immigration, we care about education, even about climate change," Rodriguez said, and she said Romney's low support from Latinos -- some 26 percent to Obama's 68 percent -- is because of the Republican's political positions, not how he looks.
On Wednesday, her group's public action committee partnered with the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org to launch an online video criticizing Romney for the remarks.
Romney's Latino supporters, on the other hand, are praising the candidate for his candor.
"As a Latino, I totally took it as a compliment," said Los Angeles strategist Luis Alvarado, one of six Californians on the Romney campaign's Hispanic leadership team. "Latino civic participation continues to grow; people are paying attention to us. Our votes are having an impact."
Romney's comments at the May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton reflected concerns about his party's waning Latino support.
"We're having a much harder time with Hispanic voters, and if the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American voting bloc has in the past, why, we're in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation," he told supporters who paid $50,000 a plate to attend the dinner talk.
He mentioned his father's early years in northern Mexico, where he lived in a Mormon colony.
"My heritage, my dad, as you probably know, was the governor of Michigan, was the head of a car company, but he was born in Mexico. Had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot of winning this."
The crowd laughed as Romney continued.
"But, he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico; they lived there for a number of years. I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino."
Joke or not, critics of President Barack Obama have long attributed a racial or ethnic advantage -- a kind of electoral "affirmative action" -- to his winning 2008 election and ongoing popularity, especially among nonwhite voters.
"If Obama was white, he would be down by 20 (percent)," radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said earlier this month. "If Obama was white, this election would be over."
In an interview last year, U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Illinois, said Obama won the last election because he "pushed that magical button: a black man who was articulate, liberal, the whole white guilt, all of that."
Not true, says Harvard University researcher Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who in a June study found that being a candidate of color can hurt more than it helps.
Most Americans don't admit to racist attitudes in telephone opinion polls, so Stephens-Davidowitz studied what they search for on Google in the privacy of their homes. He found a high concentration of people looking up racist jokes that denigrated African Americans in swing regions such as western Pennsylvania, Michigan, eastern Ohio and Florida, places where politically independent whites are an important voting bloc.
"Any votes Obama gained due to his race in the general election were not nearly enough to outweigh the cost of racial animus, meaning race was a large net negative for Obama," he wrote.
Latinos experience a similar level of animus, said Barreto, whose polling firm, Latino Decisions, released a report this week detailing how Americans are more likely to stereotype Latinos negatively if they watch media programs that portray them in a bad light.
Some Latino advocates are calling for an apology from Romney when he speaks today on Univision News' "Meet the Candidates" special. The interview with anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas airs online at about 3:20 p.m. (Pacific time) in Spanish at http://ow.ly/dNWX0 and in English at http://ow.ly/dNXpk. The taped interview will be broadcast at 7 p.m. on the Univision network, Channel 14 in the Bay Area.
The last time Romney met with Ramos during the primary campaign in January, the GOP candidate made a similar joke about a Latino polling advantage.
"Are you Mexican-American? Would you be the first Hispanic president?" Ramos asked, citing the Romney family history in Mexico.
"I would love to be able to convince people of that, particularly in a Florida primary," Romney answered, laughing. "But I think that might be disingenuous on my part."