WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney’s uphill bid for stronger support in the Latino community, already wounded by his tough talk about illegal immigration, faces new challenges thanks to the Supreme Court decision on Arizona’s controversial law.
The ruling assures that immigration will be a major flashpoint in the campaign, threatening to help rival Democrats keep drawing attention to the tough language Romney used when he was seeking conservative support for the Republican presidential nomination. It complicates the more cautious line he walks now as he reaches out not only to Hispanic voters but to suburban moderates.
“The decision today by the court continues to shine a very bright light on Gov. Romney’s statements on immigration and the Arizona law specifically, and that is just plain bad news for Romney,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a polling firm that studies Hispanic voting trends.
As if to underscore the tough spot he’s in, Romney didn’t directly address the Arizona law Monday in a carefully worded statement after the court ruling.
The former Massachusetts governor criticized President Barack Obama, saying the ruling “underscores the need for a president who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy.”
The closest Romney came to commenting on the law: “I believe that each state has the duty – and the right – to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities. As Candidate Obama, he promised to present an immigration plan during his first year in office. But four years later, we are still waiting.”
He issued the statement from Phoenix, where he was attending previously scheduled private events. He would not elaborate.
Similarly, Romney has refused for more than a week to say whether he’d uphold or reverse a June 15 Obama administration decision to stop deporting 800,000 young illegal immigrants.
Romney trailed far behind Obama among Hispanic voters in critical swing states even before the ruling. Now things get tougher.
Now, said Latino interest groups, the community could have fresh motivation to keep the immigration issue in the forefront. And any lack of enthusiasm for Obama, who has not pushed hard to fulfill his 2008 pledge to fight for an overhauled immigration system, appears to have waned.
Polls suggest Obama could get 60 percent of the Hispanic vote. Republican George W. Bush got about 40 percent in 2004 and John McCain 31 percent in 2008. The question is whether Obama can duplicate his own 67 percent showing four years ago – and hold Romney to the 30 percent level.
What will motivate that uncertain 10 percent Hispanic swing vote is unclear. After Monday’s ruling, Republicans were talking carefully, if at all, while Democrats made it clear: They’ll keep thumping at the message that opponents were eager to make life uncomfortable for Hispanics.
“Looking ahead to the immigration debate, it is disturbing that Mitt Romney called the unconstitutional Arizona law a ‘model’ for immigration reform,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., outlined the stakes. “The Supreme Court dealt a blow to the anti-immigrant movement, but also dealt a blow to Latinos and immigrants living in the United States,” he said. “This threatens the safety of all Americans and undermines the fundamental relationship between police and the communities they serve.”
Democrats are eager to remind voters of Romney’s recent history.
During the campaign, he urged illegal immigrants to engage in “self-deportation.” He said he would veto the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for young people who fill educational or military requirements. He also strongly defended the Arizona law. “The right course for America,” Romney said in February, “is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona and other states that are trying to do the job Barack Obama isn’t doing.”
Romney today faces a different, broader constituency in his bid for the White House, and in recent days he has tried to come off as more moderate. His gentler stance got a wide hearing last week, when he told a Latino group that he would work “with states and employers to update our temporary worker visa program so that it meets our economic needs. And if you get an advanced degree here, we want you to stay here – so we will staple a green card to your diploma.”
Romney offered no comprehensive plan to deal with the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, and he reiterated his previous view that immigrants who join the military should be allowed into this country legally.
Nor did he try. After his statement, his campaign said he expected to say nothing further Monday.