Washington Post: Mitt Romney ‘trying to walk a tightrope’ on immigration

Mitt Romney’s tough rhetoric during the Republican presidential primaries — and his reputation for flip-flopping for political benefit — has left him little room to maneuver on the issue.

By Paul West, Washington BureauJune 20, 2012, 5:24 p.m.

ORLANDO, Fla. — As Mitt Romney prepares for his biggest campaign appearance before a Latino audience, he finds himself hemmed in on an issue of importance to many Latino voters — the future of 11 million children and adults who are in the country illegally.

Romney is boxed from the right by members of his party’s conservative base. Many have been unsettled by his hedged response to President Obama‘s new policy to limit deportations of young immigrants, which Gov. Jan Brewerof Arizona and other Republican conservatives have condemned as “back-door amnesty.”

On the other side, Romney faces Latino voters and non-Latino independents whose votes will help elect the next president. But his tough rhetoric on immigration during theGOP primaries — combined with a lingering reputation for reversing course for political benefit — has left Romney with little room to maneuver.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said that Romney was “trying to walk a tightrope and doesn’t want to alienate Hispanic voters.”

But “there’s only so far he can move from his earlier immigration positions without completely forfeiting his limited credibility as a conservative. In fact, immigration was one of the only issues where he stood out from the other people in the primary field. It was his Good Housekeeping seal of approval as a conservative,” said Krikorian, whose Washington-based group advocates for increased immigration enforcement.

Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated talk-radio host, maintains that Romney’s “refusal to give a straight answer” when asked whether he would undo Obama’s policy threatens to diminish the enthusiasm of many Republican voters.

“Anger is beginning toward Mitt Romney on the lack of leadership he has shown on the issue,” Deace said. “Conservatives are beginning to think that the people who run both parties are really the same.”

The conservative magazine National Review asked readers of its website whether Romney had been too weak on Obama’s immigration order. Out of more than 13,000 responses, 59% said yes.

Romney’s views will be the focus of attention Thursday when he addresses the annual meeting of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando. Obama speaks to the group Friday.

For now, at least, the Republican challenger appears to have been outmaneuvered by the president’s decision not to deport many young illegal immigrants brought to the country by their parents. Obama’s order covers those 16 to 30 years old who have lived in the country for at least five years without issue. It offers them renewable legal protection, but not citizenship.

Before Obama’s announcement, Romney had expressed interest in a proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio(R-Fla.) that would have addressed problems faced by children of illegal immigrants, though without granting a path to citizenship. (Obama and other Democrats have long favored such a path but it has been blocked by congressional Republicans.) The Cuban American senator said this week that he was dropping his measure until after the election, because Obama had removed the urgency for immediate action.

Frank Sharry, a liberal immigration advocate, said that if Romney had embraced Rubio’s view, “it would have signaled to fence-sitting Latinos that he was not the nativist that he was portrayed as in the primaries. Probably his best option was just taken from him.”

National polls give Romney less than one-fourth of the Latino vote, a weak showing that could make it very difficult for him to carry battleground states where Latinos represent a sizable portion of voters, including Florida, Nevada and Colorado.

To date, Romney has reached out to Latino voters with extensions of his central theme of economic renewal. A new Spanish-language Web video, released this week by his campaign, highlights the high levels of Latino unemployment and poverty during Obama’s presidency. Romney has also begun introducing immigration into his stump speech, as part of a list of Obama’s policy failures.

But his efforts to attract Latinos have been complicated by the tough line he took in recent months. He eviscerated competitor Rick Perry for allowing illegal immigrant students to receive in-state tuition, he backed Arizona’s tough stance against illegal immigration, and said that illegal immigrants should self-deport by returning to their home countries to seek legal status.

Romney has acknowledged that his party faces what he described as electoral “doom” if it does not win over more Latinos, the nation’s largest minority group.

His aides have given few hints that he will announce major initiatives when he appears before NALEO, the influential Latino organization of Democratic and Republican officials. Last month, in a highly anticipated appearance before a Latino business gathering, the former governor skirted the immigration issue and largely avoided making a direct appeal for Latino votes.

Recent polling has confirmed the benefits for Obama — and potential peril for his Republican opponent — in the president’s decision to provide relief to between 800,000 and 1.4 million young illegal immigrants.

An opinion survey found that Obama had improved his standing with Latinos in five battleground states. The Latino Decisions poll showed that his new policy had erased an earlier “enthusiasm deficit” for Obama among Latino voters that stemmed from the large number of deportations during his presidency.

Separately, a national Bloomberg poll found that a majority of likely voters approved of Obama’s immigration policy, with a key swing group — independents — agreeing with it by a margin of more than 2 to 1.

paul.west@latimes.com

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