Mitt Romney may adopt a softer tone on illegal immigration now that the long and divisive primary is over and he gears up for a head-to-head battle with 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 Journal 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 country 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 nor 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.