WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney appears to be banking this week on Latinos having short-term memories – unveiling a softer tone on immigration during the Republican presidential candidate’s strongest push yet to cut into President Barack Obama’s commanding lead for the Latino vote.
The GOP nominee ratcheted up advertising in Latino markets, addressed the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and appeared on the leading Spanish-language networks, Univision and Telemundo.
He caught skeptics’ attention when he spoke of immigration in ways that appeared at odds with some of the statements he made during the primaries, including suggesting he’d support the Dream Act – which would give a path to citizenship for those who immigrated as children and attend college or serve in the military – after previously saying he’d veto the measure. The messages seemed so different that, for some, it brought back memories of the “Etch A Sketch” comment made last spring by a Romney aide, who described how his boss could shake things up after the brutal primaries and start a new moderate campaign for the general election.
“It’s hard to see it as anything but flip-flopping because he was just saying something different 10 to 12 months ago,” said Greg Weeks, chair of the political science department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
There appears to be no question that Obama will win the greatest share of the Latino vote. Romney is doing his best to cut into that lead, but experts say he isn’t making up much ground among the fraction of undecided Latinos. And becoming too immigration friendly could turn off conservative voters.
But Obama faces his own challenges in energizing a less enthusiastic voting bloc that helped him win four years ago. He’s also getting grilled for failing to pass immigration reform.
Obama commands nearly 70 percent of Latino support, which could be critical in swing states with large Hispanic populations, such as Nevada and Colorado. But Romney hopes to grab some of those votes by appealing to Latinos’ concerns about the economy, which polls show is Latinos’ greatest issue. But the economic message is tougher to get across when the perception of many Latinos is that Republicans don’t like them, Weeks said.
Romney expressed support for Arizona’s tough immigration law – which requires police officers, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of those suspected of being in the country illegally – and other policies that encourage the undocumented to “self-deport,” or return to their countries of birth. He has said he’d veto the federal Dream Act. The bill failed, but Obama implemented a policy this summer that would halt deportations of young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
This week, Romney said he supported giving legal permanent residence to illegal immigrants who serve in the military. He suggested to Univision that he could support legislation similar to the Dream Act that has been proposed by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
“I’m not going to be rounding people up and deporting them,” Romney said. “We’re going to put in place a permanent solution. And, unlike the president, when I’m president I will actually do what I promised.”
Romney hosted several prominent Latino Republican elected officials at the Republican National Convention last month in Tampa, Fla. But at the same convention, the party formally adopted a platform saying that more states should adopt laws like Arizona’s, which the vast majority of Latinos strongly oppose.
“Part of the problem is that a lot of Latino voters are not in his corner for things that have nothing to do with him,” said Sylvia Manzano, a senior analyst at Latino Decisions, which is conducting a weekly Latino tracking poll with impreMedia. The Republican Party’s approach with immigrants over the past several years makes it difficult for Romney or any candidate to make up ground in one campaign, let alone 45 days, Manzano said.
Romney’s approach also risks alienating supporters.
“There is a reason why he took the position that he took during his campaign for the nomination,” said Ira Mehlman, communications director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “If the people who took him at face value back then find they’ve been betrayed, it might not sit well with them.”
Obama faces his own challenges with Latinos. His actions don’t always match his words. Despite a message of compassion, his administration has deported more illegal immigrants than any other administration.
He was pressed repeatedly Thursday by Univision anchors over a promise to deliver immigration reform. Obama admitted his “biggest failure so far” was not passing immigration reform.
One big test will be at the upcoming debates, when moderators are expected to bring up Obama’s immigration promise and Romney’s shifting tone on immigration.
Romney can take advantage of the opportunity when Obama is undoubtedly questioned about failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform, while at the same time sounding tough enough and conservative enough on an issue that strikes a chord with conservatives, said Republican consultant Keith Appell. “They’re going to want to see their nominee come across strong and not wishy-washy.”
The challenge for Romney is conveying a nuanced message in a way that doesn’t come across as pandering, said Michael Franc, the vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
“It’s almost as if the campaign is an ideas- or a substance-free zone, and your’e combating that when you try to educate,” Franc said. “If you want to use the campaign to educate the voters, it’s more difficult than it use to be.”