Mitt Romney may adopt a softer tone on illegal immigration now that the long and divisive primary is all but over and he gears up for a head-to-head battle with President Barack Obama.
Obama leads Romney among Hispanic voters by 40 points, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll, confirming the candidate's weakness with the fastest-growing demographic in the country. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign made a push on Wednesday to reach out to Hispanic voters by launching Spanish-language ads in battleground states like Colorado.
On Sunday, in comments overheard by reporters from NBC and other outlets, Romney seemed worried about the chasm.
"We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party," he told donors, according to NBC. Latinos' overwhelming support for Democrats and Obama "spells doom for us," he said.
Though it's still unclear exactly how Romney plans to avoid this "doom," the campaign appeared to distance itself from Kris Kobach, a Yale-trained lawyer and Kansas state politician who crafted most of the recent state and local laws that crack down on illegal immigration.
A few months ago, Romney said in a press release that he was happy to have Kobach "on the team" and was looking forward to working with him to combat illegal immigration. Kobach told reporters that he was advising the governor on immigration issues. But a Romney spokesperson told Politico's Glenn Thrush on Tuesday that Kobach is a "supporter," not an adviser. Kobach told National Review Online later Tuesday that his role hasn't changed and he's still an informal adviser, and blamed Democrats for making it appear as if his job had been modified.
But is the "adviser" versus "supporter" difference just semantics? Maybe, but the distinction is likely important for some Hispanic voters who associate Kobach with policies that they believe scapegoat illegal immigrants and their children—many of whom are U.S. citizens—for the nation's economic and national security problems.
"I think he better bury [Kobach] deep underground between now and November," Miami-based Republican strategist Ana Navarro told Yahoo News. "I'd tell him to get a one-way ticket to Finland for the next six months."
Whatever his next move on Kobach, Romney signaled in his overheard comments that he may embrace a Republican version of the DREAM Act, which would legalize some immigrant young people who were brought to the U.S. as children. (Sen. Marco Rubio, a rumored vice presidential pick for Romney, has been working on a version of the DREAM Act that would legalize but not give citizenship to some young people who grew up in the country.) Romney also said Republicans should criticize Obama for falsely promising Latinos that he would pass immigration reform in his first year in office.
Latino voters are by no means a homogenous or single-issue group, and polls show that on aggregate, they care most about the economy and jobs, with immigration issues trailing behind. But Republican strategists stress that a hostile-sounding tone on immigration issues alienates many Hispanic voters, no matter the candidate's economic platform.
During the long and heated Republican primary, Romney has occasionally used a harsh tone against illegal immigrants. In a memorable debate exchange with Gov. Rick Perry, Romney said he fired a lawn company after he found out that it hired "illegals" to work on his lawn. "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals," he said he told the company. He also brought the phrase "self deport" into the lexicon, explaining his theory that illegal immigrants will leave the country voluntarily and en masse when employers are made to check immigration status before hiring.
Navarro said that Romney can adopt a softer tone without flip-flopping on his earlier statement that he wouldn't support a path to legalization. "He can show some heart and sympathy towards the immigrants, the situation of these immigrant kids in particular, and at the same time show anger towards the failures of Obama and how he's used the Latino community as pawns," she said.
Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who endorsed Romney and helped him win the Florida primary despite their disagreement over immigration reform, credited Romney for not "pandering" to Latinos, but said he hasn't done the best possible job of reaching out to them. "I think he's got a long way to go," he said.
Diaz-Balart agreed that tone is crucial, and blamed some Republicans for using a "nasty" tone on illegal immigration in the past. "I think frankly it sounded to Latinos as if Hispanics were not welcome," he said. "Governor Romney is not like that, he never has been."
Jennifer Korn, the director of the center-right Hispanic Leadership Network and a former Hispanic-affairs aide in the George W. Bush White House, said that it wouldn't hurt for Romney to talk about how he cares about immigrants and their contributions to the country. "I think Romney is a decent man and believes immigration is a wonderful thing for this country, so it would only benefit him if he were to extend those remarks and say the Hispanic community and other immigrant communities make up the fabric of our country and add to it," she said. Korn says Bush—who said in a 2006 immigration reform speech that "the vast majority of illegal immigrants are decent people who work hard, support their families, practice their faith, and lead responsible lives"—had "the language down," and meant it.
Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, compared to Sen. John McCain's 31 percent four years later, Navarro points out. She believes Romney will have to amass at least 37 percent of the vote to win, though the percentage depends on turnout. In the latest Pew poll, 27 percent of Hispanic voters said they backed Romney.
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