Romney Immigration Position Could Hurt in Florida

With President Bush staying on the sidelines in the 2008 race, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has looked very much like the choice of the next-best Bush: Jeb, the former governor of electorally crucial Florida.

Jeb Bush's former aides have flocked to Romney's camp. Romney has listed him among his potential running mates, and Bush associates say the president's brother has steered them to Romney -- his fellow businessman-turned-governor -- when asked for advice on the presidential race.

But with Romney seeking to distance himself from his rivals by opposing the Senate immigration bill, Romney's relationship with Jeb Bush could suffer. The former Florida governor has voiced strong support for the type of immigration reform that's now before the Senate, viewing it as an important priority of his brother's -- and the right type of approach to a complicated issue.

Jeb Bush did not respond to a request for comment. But Ana Navarro, a Florida Republican activist and fundraiser who has worked with Jeb Bush on immigration issues in the past, said the former governor told her last weekend that he is "disappointed" that Romney has denounced the immigration bill in television advertisements.

"It's one of the biggest policy and legacy issues of his brother's administration, but more than that, Jeb believes in this," said Navarro, who is supporting Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for president. "I don't speak for Jeb, but I know where his heart is on this issue."

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said strong opinions on immigration are to be expected, and said such differences are not likely to "divide individuals."

"There's a great deal of mutual admiration between the two of them," Madden said. "On this particular issue, the governor has made clear his principles and what he'd like to see. It's obviously a very complex issue, and there are very different opinions."

Romney's strong opposition to the immigration bill now in Congress -- he calls it a "form of amnesty" -- could win him points with the party's conservative base. Romney is running television ads attacking the bill, which McCain helped craft with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and a range of other lawmakers.

"Legal immigration is great. But illegal immigration, that we've got to end," Romney says in the ad, which has aired in Iowa and New Hampshire. "And amnesty is not the way to do it."

But Romney's position on immigration could cost him crucial political support in Florida, which, with the state's move to hold its primary Jan. 29, is poised to play an outsize role in the presidential nominating process.

Aside from the former governor, the Senate bill is being supported by current Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, and Senator Mel Martinez, a Cuban immigrant who is chairman of the Republican National Committee and has been intricately involved in crafting the immigration bill.

Martinez said on CNN Sunday that the immigration bill "could be the saving of the Republican Party, frankly."

David E. Johnson, a Florida-based Republican consultant, said Romney's immigration stance could harm his relationship with Florida lawmakers, including Bush, who has strongly signaled that Romney is his preferred candidate for president.

But the issue still may not be a "deal-breaker" for Bush, Johnson said. And any political harm could be outweighed by additional support he might receive from the party's conservative base, which is more skeptical of the immigration bill than the state's top GOP officials, he said.

"It will hurt him with the Bush people, but it won't hurt him too much with the rank and file," Johnson said. "People are disgusted with what's going on as far as immigration. There's a feeling that basically the party leadership is ignoring the rank and file."

Still, Florida Republicans -- with their relatively high proportion of Hispanics -- are more inclined than Republicans in other states to support a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to achieve citizenship, said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.

Without naming names, Diaz-Balart said he's troubled with the "tone" being struck by several Republican presidential candidates.

"Hispanics are looking for sensitivity, and for people who are acting in a reasonable fashion, and are not succumbing to unfortunate instincts," said Diaz-Balart, a McCain supporter. "There are a number of worrisome overtones that we're hearing in this debate. I would hope that we would not hear them in the presidential campaign, but unfortunately we're already hearing them."

David Rivera, a Republican state representative from Miami, said he is still considering supporting Romney for president. But he said Romney's position on immigration gives him "pause" in making his choice, since he wants a candidate who appreciates the contributions made by both documented and undocumented immigrants.

"I understand the nature of politics, and the nature of politics in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina," Rivera said. "But I also don't think it resonates as strongly as some others seem to think. Romney may be mistaken if he's making that calculation."