MIAMI - One of the most fiercely debated issues in the Republican primary thus far has been immigration, but with front-runner Mitt Romney vowing to veto the DREAM Act if elected president, it is a fair question to ask if the GOP candidates have veered so far to the right in an effort to secure their party's nomination that in the process they have alienated Latinos, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc.
According to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, that's exactly what's happening.
"America is a big tent. We come from every corner of the earth. Our values should represent that, and our politics and our actions, our policies should represent that," Villaraigosa said this morning in an interview with Candy Crowley on CNN's "State of the Union." "And I think, when you talk about the question of immigration as an example, many of the policies that you see articulated right now in those debates are just out of the mainstream."
But it's more than just immigration that's alienating Latinos these days, he noted.
"When it comes to policies and actions, it's the president who has helped to create 2 million jobs that Latinos have right now, 6 million overall with the Recovery Act, so it's not just immigration," he said. "I would agree with respect to rhetoric, however, that some of that divisive polarizing rhetoric that you see and hear in the Republican debates are turning off a lot of voters, including a lot of Latino voters."
Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who appeared alongside Villaraigosa on the program and backs Romney in the race for the White House, acknowledged that the harsh rhetoric on immigration used by some of the GOP candidates has hurt the party's chances of winning the Latino vote.
"The words sting sometimes, the words that are used around the debate. And that has turned off Hispanics," Gutierrez said.
However, he added that President Obama has failed to make good on the "grand promises" he made to Latinos during the 2008 campaign - promises of sweeping immigration reform if elected. Instead, Obama never released a comprehensive immigration reform bill and was unable to get Congress to even pass the DREAM Act, a measure to provide a path to citizenship for some children of undocumented immigrants who go to college or serve in the military.
"It's been three years. He had the House and the Senate for two years, and nothing has been done," Gutierrez said. "What has happened is that immigration is being used as a political football. It's being used for political tactics. So Democrats bring out the DREAM Act, just one sliver of the overall immigration piece. They put things in there, in that bill, that make it impossible to pass. But they're using it for tactical reasons, for tactical voting reasons. And the people who are paying the price are the Hispanics who have their hopes up for the Democrats to come in and fix these problems, and they're just using them for tactical election reasons.
"What Governor Romney said yesterday, which I think is a very important insight, is we need to look first at our legal immigration system," he added. "We need a national immigration strategy, but we need to look first at the legal system. Because the legal system is quite flawed. And that's why we have an illegal immigration problem."
Despite Obama's inaction on immigration reform, Latinos continue to favor the president by wide margins over all of his possible Republican opponents. According to a new poll released this week by ABC News and Univision, registered Latino voters nationwide would back Obama over Romney by 67 percent to 25 percent. If Newt Gingrich manages to secure the GOP nomination, Latinos support Obama to an even larger degree: 70 percent to 22 percent.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.