DES MOINES, Iowa – Speaking to Democratic activists at a fundraising dinner here on Saturday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa lashed out at the Republican Party and said a Mitt Romney presidency would halt progress won under President Barack Obama.
"Today, between the Tea Partiers, the climate change deniers, the birthers and the flat-earthers, I hardly recognize the Republican Party anymore," Villaraigosa said, telling the crowd that as a mayor he has sought to work across party lines.
"Republicans used to stand for something,” he said. “And now they just stand in the way."
Villaraigosa was in Des Moines to headline the Iowa Democrats' Jefferson Jackson dinner, the state party's annual marquee fundraising event.
In an interview, he called the invitation a great honor. Past keynoters have included other Democrats on a national trajectory, including a turn in 2007 by then-candidate Obama.
But if it seems like Villaraigosa is eyeing a White House bid, he wouldn't say.
"My aspiration right now is to get the president elected," he told NBC News.
Villaraigosa will be term-limited next year in Los Angeles and said he wants to "finish strong."
Though he supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, he has since emerged as a visible surrogate for President Obama.
In September, he served as chairman of the Democratic National Convention, helping to raise the profile of the Hispanic community at a time when both parties are battling over the country's largest-growing demographic.
Villaraigosa said during the interview that he predicted Obama would win more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in August – a time when the president, though still enjoying an advantage, was polling in the low 60s.
"I still maintain that when it's all said and done, Latinos will vote overwhelmingly for President Obama," Villaraigosa said Saturday.
He cited Republican opposition to the DREAM act, which would provide a path to citizenship for children who moved to the United States illegally as children, and which he said Republicans say is a "handout."
Asked about Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the rising Republican star who makes frequent references to faith, family and free market principles – ideas that some conservatives say will lead Hispanics to the Republican Party – Villaraigosa was polite but said the GOP has "gone so far to the right."
"I have a lot of respect for him," Villaraigosa said of Rubio. "But that's not the point of view reflected in the Latino vote."
(Rubio has said the Republican Party needs to soften on immigration, and has proposed alternative legislation which would not include the DREAM Act's pathway to citizenship.)
While Villaraigosa called for moderation from the right, he was outspoken in his defense of the broad reforms enacted by the Obama administration that Republicans have called divisive and have pledged to undo.
During his speech, he called the election a decision on the country's "fundamental direction."
"What people don't realize about those first two years with Nancy Pelosi and Democratic majority in the House and Senate, and President Obama," he said, "it actually was the most productive congress since the Johnson administration."