Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tells Yahoo News that Mitt Romney needs to make "a personal connection" with Hispanic voters if he wants to have a shot at the presidency. Gonzales, who served under George W. Bush before abruptly resigning in 2007, says he holds out hope that Romney will support comprehensive immigration reform if he's elected, despite the candidate's statements during the primary that illegal immigrants should not be legalized as a group.
"I'm not sure Gov. Romney has rejected comprehensive immigration reform, and it very well may be that he'll look at the issue with a fresh eye," he said. Gonzales added that Romney has "backed away" from his primary call for "self deportation," an immigration strategy that encourages illegal immigrants to return to their home countries by ensuring that they are unable to find work. Romney ran to the right of Texas Gov. Rick Perry on immigration during the primary, but has pivoted since he became the presumptive nominee.
Gonzales was among those supporting President George W. Bush's attempt to pass a law in his second term that would legalize millions of illegal immigrants currently residing in the country who paid a fine and had no criminal record. He says the rhetoric in the Republican Party has changed dramatically since then, and that it may hurt the party's chances on the national stage. Analysts generally think a Republican presidential candidate needs about 40 percent of the Latino vote to win. Bush exceeded that in 2004, but John McCain picked up only 31 percent four years later. Only 27 percent of Hispanic voters said they supported Romney in a recent NBC poll.
"I think that members of our party have spoken about this in a way that's not only anti-immigration but anti-Hispanic, and I think that's harmful to the long term future of the party," Gonzales said, referencing statements that the entire border should be fenced and that every illegal immigrant should be rounded up and deported. "That's been disappointing."
"I believe in a secure border, I'm a law-and-order kind of guy, but it seems to me we can talk about achieving a secure border in a way that reflects the reality of why people come here and has a more compassionate tone," he said.
Romney announced his Hispanic outreach team on Wednesday; it is packed with Latino Republican politicians and former politicians who support comprehensive immigration reform, including former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, who leads the team. The Obama campaign is exploiting this difference of opinion between Romney and his advisers, releasing a long list of the times the surrogates have disagreed with immigration positions Romney articulated during the primary.
Gonzales says Romney needs to find a way to connect with the Hispanic community, no matter what immigration policies he eventually embraces. Hispanic voters consistently say the economy and jobs are the most important issues to them, so focusing on those issues while avoiding a harsh tone on immigration may work, he says. "Policy is important, but the tone is equally important," he says. "He has to find some way to make a personal connection to the Hispanic community. Bush was able to do that. ... Many of us had the sense that Bush understood us. He believed in us and we believed in him," he said.
"I think [Bush] was able to make a personal connection, and I'm not sure that Governor Romney has done that yet."
Campaigning in front of Latino voters in Texas this week, Romney emphasized that the unemployment rate is higher for Hispanic Americans than for the general population and said that Obama's economic policies are hurting them.
Gonzales is not overly impressed with one outreach tactic some have suggested for Romney—picking the charismatic and young Republican Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida to be his running mate.
"He's obviously very talented and has been very successful to date, and I honor his service," Gonzales says. "What I try to emphasize is that I think a presidential nominee should look [for] someone who can be president on day one." He added that he thinks executive branch experience is more useful than legislative experience in a vice president. "People aren't going to vote for Romney based on who he picks for No. 2," he says.
Gonzales is now a counsel at Waller law firm and a law professor at Belmont University in Nashville.