Commentary: Mitt Romney is hurting himself with Latino voters

The Sacramento BeeApril 11, 2012 

Mitt Romney ought to be worried that he is coming down with a bad case of Meg Whitman syndrome.

Like his friend Whitman, who spent $162 million on her failed run for California governor in 2010, the more money that Romney and his benefactors spend, the less voters seem to like him.

That's only one telltale symptom of the ailment. Just as Whitman alienated Latino voters by morphing from a moderate to hard-liner on immigration, Romney's tough primary rhetoric aimed at illegal immigration is weakening him with Latino voters, damaging his chances in the general election.

In debates, ads and speeches, other Republican candidates attacked the former Massachusetts governor as a moderate. Romney responded by tacking hard to the right on illegal immigration, in his quest for primary voters who are more extreme than the general electorate.

To the delight of Barack Obama's campaign team, Romney has called Arizona's anti-immigration law a model for the nation, opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants and vowed that he would veto DREAM Act legislation, which would grant aid to college students whose illegal-immigrant parents brought them to this country.

Test results are coming back, and the situation looks grave. A Fox News poll last month showed that Latinos favor Obama over Romney by 70 percent to 14 percent. That same poll showed 90 percent of Latinos support the DREAM Act.

Latinos, the fastest growing segment of the nation's population, make up 10 percent, 20 percent or more of eligible voters in battleground states, and approach 40 percent in the highly competitive state of New Mexico.

Republican consultant Hector Barajas has spent the bulk of his career trying to help the GOP win over Latinos. It hasn't worked yet, and he worries the party's outreach will fail once more, in part because of stands taken by presidential candidates, including Romney, Barajas' choice.

"I'm a lot less enthusiastic now than I was, because of the harsh rhetoric toward immigration in the presidential campaign," Barajas said.

With his primary victories last week, Romney has all but vanquished Rick Santorum, his final serious challenger. No doubt, the candidate who described himself as severely conservative will move to the center on many issues, including immigration, or at least he'll try. Democrats will go out of their way to remind Latinos about Romney's primary campaign stands. Republican "friends" could chime in, too.

Russell Pearce offered Romney his help last week when he told the Washington Post that Romney's "immigration policy is identical to mine." Pearce is the Arizona lightning rod who authored that state's Senate Bill 1070, which allows local cops to detain suspected illegal immigrants and inflames many Latinos, who see it as a form of racial profiling.

There might have been a time – say, before the South Carolina primary – when Romney would have welcomed Pearce's marvelous words. Not now. The campaign didn't answer my email seeking a response to Pearce's comments.

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul did send an email saying, in ever-so-measured terms, that Romney would fix "our broken immigration system, respecting those who are waiting patiently to come here legally, and finally ending illegal immigration in a civil and resolute manner."

Earlier this year, back when his nomination was in doubt, Romney welcomed the endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris W. Kobach, the former U.S. Justice Department official who helped write the anti-illegal immigration laws for Arizona and Alabama, and who has become a pariah among Latino activists.

Romney called Kobach "a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration," and traveled with him in the days leading up to the South Carolina primary, but not since.

"He did say in a debate in Arizona that he thought the Arizona law was a model for the country," Kobach told me, referring to a February debate hosted by CNN. "That would square with my views."

All these issues – the Arizona law, amnesty, the DREAM Act – are familiar to Californians. They played out in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary fight between Whitman and her opponent, Steve Poizner.

Romney, who is a friend of Whitman's from their days at Bain Capital, worked hard for Whitman in her political debut. She campaigned for him when he ran for president in 2008 and is doing the same in this campaign.

But in this campaign, much of what Romney says mimics Poizner, or more likely strategist Stuart Stevens. Stevens was Poizner's top strategist and is a senior strategist for Romney's presidential campaign.

In 2010, Stevens called immigration the single biggest issue in the Poizner-Whitman primary. Poizner ran hard to the right on immigration, decrying policies that he said were "magnets" that draw illegal immigrants to California.

Similarly, Romney uses the magnet analogy, something not lost on Californians who worked for Poizner and Whitman. And just as Poizner accused Whitman of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants, Romney attacked his rivals for supporting what he characterized as amnesty.

Poizner's strategy failed. Whitman clobbered him in the primary. But he also forced Whitman to harden her rhetoric, and, in the process, severely weakened Whitman heading into the general election campaign. Jerry Brown trounced her, in part because he won 63 percent to 80 percent of the Latino vote, depending on which poll you view.

In this campaign, Romney pushed himself to the right, further than he needed to go. As Whitman learned and Romney should have realized, Latino voters matter.

The 2012 presidential election could be decided in such states as Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, where the Latino vote can determine the outcome.

Perhaps Romney will figure out a way to win some of that vote, maybe by picking a Latino or a Latina running mate.

But he better start shaking his campaign Etch A Sketch hard and hope that "friends" like Pearce stop trying to help him, or he risks falling victim to the same malady that led to Whitman's defeat.

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