By Ed Morales

In a strange way, the ascension of Newt Gingrich in the race for the Republican nomination for president began with a comment he made about immigration at the CNN-sponsored debate last month.

"I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter-century," he said. "And I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, 'Let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality.'"

Just weeks after then-candidate Herman Cain had been "joking" about installing electrified fences along the border of Mexico, and in stark contrast to most of his Republican peers' staunch opposition to "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, Gingrich came across as someone who seemed to have a moral conscience about the issue.

Gingrich's approach to Latinos comes straight from the lips of conservative patriarch Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 said, "Latinos are Republican. They just don't know it yet." The idea is that Latinos' strong family orientation and religious values make them natural Republicans.

Gingrich's bilingual website, theamericano.com, reflects this strategy. It recently touted, for example, a Spanish-language translation of an essay on American exceptionalism provided by the conservative Heritage Foundation, the naming of Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval to the board of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network, and the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico.

Gingrich has also strongly promoted emerging Latino Republicans, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the austerity-championing governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuno.

But Gingrich and the Republican Party have an impossible hill to climb with Latinos, who have become so alienated from the increasingly hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric from candidates like Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose fixation on the term anchor babies has almost singlehandedly made it an ethnic slur.

A poll released Monday by ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions said that 73 percent of Latinos view Republicans as "ignoring or hostile to Latinos."

Gingrich's own record on Latino issues isn't so hot. He seems to be hoping that Latinos don't remember that in 2007 he said Spanish is "the language of living in the ghetto."

Gingrich's patronizing belief that the poor and the non-English-speaking are in need of a Protestant work ethic may not go over well with Latinos, either. Gingrich recently came out for abolishing child labor laws so that young students could work as janitors and learn the value of a dollar. Latinos want more for their kids than that.

And even though Republicans hope that Latinos' strong religious tradition will attract them to conservatism, the ImpreMedia poll said that 53 percent felt religion had "no impact" on their vote. "A strong majority of Latinos reject the explicit mixing of religion and politics," the poll also found.

Promoting "family values" over a coherent jobs plan will fail Gingrich and the Republicans at the ballot box. Paraphrasing Bill Clinton, "It's the economy, estupido."

Ed Morales is the author of Living in Spanglish. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project.