After his narrow victory in Iowa and resounding win in New Hampshire , Mitt Romney may well be on his way to locking up the Republican nomination before the primary is even a month old. But the damage that the GOP fight has done to his chances of winning the general election may prove to be severe if he cannot convince Latino voters to give him another shot.
While Romney's efforts to woo his party's conservative voters have clearly helped him in the two contests thus far, the former Massachusetts governor has veered far to the right on the issue that most affects Latinos: immigration.
Only days before the Iowa caucuses, for instance, Romney said that as president he would veto the DREAM Act , a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented children of immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. The fall-out from Latinos was immediate. The next day I asked Juan Rodriguez, a Republican businessman in Des Moines, if he would back Romney. Rodriguez didn't hesitate in his response.
"I wouldn't vote for Romney because he doesn't support immigration reform or the DREAM Act," he said. "My business depends on Hispanics basically, and if there's no immigration reform we are going to be very affected. Not just me, but all the businesses that, like us, depend on the Latino community."
The next week in New Hampshire, I sat down with Esteban and Selma Lopez, a Latino couple in Goffstown who will vote for the first time in the general election this fall, and asked if they could imagine voting for Romney now.
"I work in education and I know first-hand how important the DREAM Act is for Latino youth, for kids who are in this country without having taken part in the decision to come here," Lopez replied. "The short answer is, I wouldn't vote for Romney."
Even the country's largest Latino Republican group - Somos Republicans - said they would oppose Romney due to his immigration policies.
The Obama campaign has wasted no time in trying to portray Romney as the most extreme candidate on the issue of immigration. In the days since Romney's DREAM Act statement, a slew of Latino Democrats has fanned out to rip Romney. After all, there's a lot at stake here: Latinos are the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc, with an estimated 12.2 million set to vote in this year's general election, according to a projection by the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials (NALEO).
"It really demonstrates how far he is from understanding the issue," said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez of Texas, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, on a conference call with reporters last week. "I understand that in that particular field one will try to out-pander another, but you still have to be responsible."
"How do you paint yourself into such a corner on immigration where you can't walk back from that statement?" he asked.
On primary night in New Hampshire I sat down with Rep. Xavier Becerra , D-Calif., who emphasized that Democrats are going to remind Latino voters time and time again about Romney's immigration stance.
"It appears that the Republicans are so committed to moving to the far right to win the tea party vote that they have forgotten about the rest of American voters - the independents, the Latinos," Becerra told me in Manchester. "It appears that they have said that at this moment what matters to them is the tea party because they want to be the nominee. And because of that we are hearing people like Mitt Romney who says whatever he needs to to win. But unfortunately for him there is a record, there are facts - and the facts are the things that are going to be used to judge who is the real Mitt Romney."
"He's already said to our immigrant children who perform military service or who go to college - go away. The DREAM Act, that bill to give those students an opportunity to move forward here? No. To immigrant families? Split them up," Becerra added.
Now that he appears well on his way to winning the GOP primary, Romney has tried to court Latino voters. In New Hampshire last Sunday, Romney mentioned that his father, George, was born in Mexico and came to the United States at age five. On Wednesday he took to the airwaves in Florida with a new Spanish-language ad entitled "Nosotros," meaning "us." The Republican National Committee got in on the act, too, announcing a beefed-up outreach effort to Hispanic voters.
But it may be too little, too late. Even before his DREAM Act comments, Romney faced an uphill battle with Latinos. A poll conducted by Latino Decisions for Univision in November found that among registered Hispanic voters in the 21 most Hispanic-heavy states, Obama held a whopping 67 percent to 24 percent lead over Romney.
While Romney could make up some ground among Latinos by selecting someone like Cuban-American Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as his eventual running mate, the GOP may have missed a golden opportunity to swing the 2012 election by earning the backing of Latino voters.
In my stops along the campaign trail in recent months, I have encountered numerous Latinos disillusioned with President Obama's inaction on comprehensive immigration reform measures. In Las Vegas last November, I talked to a single mother of two named Ana who said she voted for Obama in 2008, but won't do so again in 2012, no matter who the GOP nominates.
"No ha hecho nada," she said, shaking her head. "He hasn't done anything."
Earlier this month in West Liberty, Iowa - the state's first majority Hispanic town - Jose Zacarias complained that Obama "should have focused more on Latino issues like immigration and the DREAM Act."
"He spent too much time politically on the issue of universal health care and almost no time on Latino issues," sighed Zacarias.
But Zacarias told me he will still vote for Obama because no Hispanic "in his right mind" is going to vote for a Republican candidate like Romney or Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"It might be a tough sell [for Obama], but I think the GOP is helping a lot by putting those guys forward."
In the face of media scrutiny following his DREAM Act veto threat, Romney has defended his immigration stance, arguing that Latinos don't need a "handout" like the Democrats' bill but rather more economic opportunity, something that he says will occur if he wins the White House this year.
"Mitt Romney is a strong proponent of legal immigration," said Romney spokesman Albert Martinez. "He wants to attract job creators and innovators from other countries because he recognizes that immigrants are key to powering many of our industries. Mitt Romney will raise caps on high-skill visas and will staple a green card to any eligible graduate with an advanced degree in math, science or engineering. Mitt Romney is opposed to illegal immigration and amnesty because it is unfair to those who want to come to this country legally."
"The Hispanic community in Florida, like in the rest of America, have been disproportionately impacted by unemployment, and President Obama's failed economic policies have left tens of thousands of Florida Hispanics unemployed," Martinez said. "Mitt Romney is a proven leader and job creator, and will work to undo the job-killing policies of President Obama."
But if he fails to soothe Hispanics' dismay with his immigration stance, Romney may never get the chance.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News & Univision.