MILWAUKEE — With Mitt Romney looking more of a lock than ever to win the Republican presidential nomination after a hat-trick of victories Tuesday, the focus now turns to his chances in a general election showdown against President Obama, one where the Latino vote could swing the fate of the White House.
In recent weeks, Romney has come under criticism from Democrats who accuse the GOP frontrunner of being “the most extreme presidential nominee of our time” on the issue of immigration. But nothing could be further from the truth, according to one of Romney’s top supporters – and possible future running mate – Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.
Ryan endorsed Romney last Friday, spent the following four days campaigning with him in the Badger State, and defended his immigration record in an interview Tuesday night.
“I think it’s something he should talk about, how he plans to reform the immigration system,” Ryan said. “I would say that the president had his whole entire party running Congress for two years and he chose not to do anything about this problem. The immigration system is broken for everybody involved in it. It needs to be fixed and we are the party of opportunity. We do believe in legal immigration. Most of us are a product of it. We’re a product of immigration success stories. And I think he’ll speak to that.”
“I think he will be inclusive and welcoming to Latinos, to immigrants,” he continued. “I think that based on my representation of Latinos – I do bilingual town-hall meetings every year – what I get from the immigrant community is that they want legal immigration cleaned up. They want illegal immigration stopped.”
“They appreciate assimilation so their kids can have a chance at the American dream. They want us to fix this broken system. I think he’ll speak to that and I think he’ll show a positive agenda that Hispanics will be more than happy to be a part of it.”
Ryan and Romney even went on the offensive on immigration at a town-hall event Monday in Milwaukee, denouncing Obama’s failures to enact sweeping immigration reform despite promising to do so during the 2008 campaign.
“This has always been a priority for the president he chooses to do nothing about,” argued Romney. “Let the immigrant community not forget that while he uses this as a political weapon, he has not taken responsibility for fixing the problems we have.”
That charge did not sit well with Democrats, who countered in a flurry of responses by claiming that the former Massachusetts governor was “trying to distract voters from his extreme positions by misrepresenting President Obama’s record.”
“Mitt Romney has promised to veto the DREAM Act, encouraged all undocumented immigrants to self-deport, opposes comprehensive immigration reform and called the extreme Arizona immigration law a ‘model,’” said Juan Sepulveda, the Democratic National Committee’s senior adviser for Hispanic Affairs. “Mitt Romney may try to Etch-a-Sketch his extreme positions on immigration, but he can’t shake off the extreme policies he has adopted – anti-immigrant policies that Latino voters won’t soon forget.”
One of Ryan’s colleagues in the House – Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, a Democrat from Texas – pointed out that “if Gov. Romney hadn’t spent the last six years campaigning for president, he might have noticed that it was members of his own party that defeated the DREAM Act and thwarted passage of comprehensive immigration reform.”
In addition, top Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod took to Twitter to push back, saying, “Just when u think he can’t amaze, Mitt attacks POTUS for not passing the immigration reform the entire GOP opposed!”
Ryan’s comments on Romney’s chances with Latinos this fall were part of a wide-ranging interview on the night of the Wisconsin primary. In the interview, Ryan fought back against Obama’s attacks on his budget, arguing that the president was becoming “more partisan and desperate by the day.”
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.