On Arizona Immigration, a Supreme Court Rules, and a Candidate Hides

Romney won't take a position on Arizona's immigration law.

June 26, 2012, 3:36 PM

June 26, 2012— -- Twenty-four hours after the Supreme Court ruled on Arizona's controversial immigration law, Mitt Romney talked about it on camera.

But even now, nobody knows whether he supports the law. Part of it, which was upheld Monday, allows police officers to check the immigration status of every person they stop.

Romney's position on what's known as SB 1070 is unclear because he has refused to give one, a predicament that underlines his chief problem as a candidate criticized for waffling on politically toxic issues such as abortion and health care.

And despite a traveling press corps that tracks Romney's every move, not one reporter has been able to get him to say whether he supports the law, even as he talks about the Supreme Court ruling to supporters and donors.

"It's certainly becoming a hallmark of the Romney campaign," said S.E. Cupp, a conservative commentator. "If going rogue was 2008, maybe going vague is 2012?"

In August 2011, politics reporter-at-large Ben Smith called the tendency of the Romney campaign to shield the candidate from the press the Mittness Protection Program. The name -- derived because Romney was rarely granting interviews and failed to offer an opinion on a Congressional deal to avert U.S. default until after GOP leaders in Washington had finalized it -- stuck until Romney opened up on the trail and to reporters.

Mittness Protection seems to be back.

Romney has done countless interviews with conservative talk radio shows and local TV reporters. But he hasn't done any this week, and his last news conference with national reporters was May 31, although he took a few questions from reporters on a plane June 18.

Reporters yelled questions at him upon arriving in Virginia Monday night, but it wasn't clear if he heard them over the roar of the plane engine.

If reporters approach him on the ropeline as he is greeting supporters after an event, campaign staffers have been known to aim blaring speakers toward them to drown out questions.

Romney spokesman Rick Gorka also told reporters early Monday that Romney would have an "opportunity" to talk to them about immigration. But he never did.

"Vague accomplishes two things for Romney: It allows him to buy time, and then finally respond when and how he wants," Cupp said. "He takes more control over the news cycle that way. And secondly, of course, it commits him to nothing, which is always valuable currency. But I think eventually he's going to have to lay out some specifics on a whole host of issues, and suspect he may be saving those for the debates."

Romney wasn't the only one to avoid talking publicly about the Arizona decision. President Obama didn't say anything publicly either.

But while Obama's press secretary talked to reporters on Air Force One about the president's concerns with the Arizona law and the decision, Gorka wouldn't say on the Romney campaign plane whether the candidate supported the original law.

At a private fundraiser in Arizona Monday, Romney told donors Obama should have done more on immigration, and he said the court had created a "muddle." Romney likes to say that states should have the power to do more. But he won't say whether he thinks Arizona went too far by deputizing its police to verify immigration documents at traffic stops.

Romney's silence on the specifics of the controversial immigration law is remarkable for the presidential nominee of the GOP, a party that has long made immigration policy a source of pride even if a few factions within it believe reform should be pursued in different ways.

Such differences can be important. Romney used perceived moderation on immigration against both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich during the drawn-out Republican primary. Perry and Gingrich said the children of illegal immigrants should have some pathway to stay in the United States.

Opposing such a pathway might have helped Romney win the Republican primary. But it won't help him with Latino voters in November.

And that has probably contributed to Romney's silence on the Arizona immigration law. Why talk about a divisive issue when Romney and independent voters are focused on the economy?

The most illustrative moment of the campaign's squirming on the matter of the immigration law Monday was when Gorka spoke to the reporters, but nearly a dozen times refused to tell them what Romney believes.

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At one point, Gorka even told them that they aren't traveling on the press planes so they can have access to Romney, but rather so they can arrive at campaign events in a timely way.

"We charter planes to make it easier for you guys to travel and cover the campaign," he said. "It's not for -- this isn't the Supreme Court plane. This is the Romney campaign plane that we've brought together to make it easier for you guys."

He added: "This is an easier way for you guys to travel and cover the candidate. In style, I might add."

With the obvious opportunity presenting itself, Democrats catapulted into rapid-response mode, blasting out news reports of Romney's abstinence.

Jennifer Korn, a Romney supporter who heads the Hispanic Leadership Network, defended the candidate's silence on his position and characterized Democrats' goading as a "trap" designed to force Romney to fumble on a politically toxic issue.

ABC News' Emily Friedman contributed reporting.

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