As Primary Disintegrates, Romney Thumbs a Reset Button

Women and Latinos might get a second look at the GOP nominee.

April 5, 2012, 5:47 PM

April 6, 2012 -- If Mitt Romney were an agent in "Men in Black," now's about the time he would hold up the memory-erasing cylinder and flash the red light in the direction of every independent female, Latino and working-class voter.

Unfortunately for Romney, the general election won't present him with a clean slate, and Democrats plan on keeping that slate full of all the far-right positions that the presumptive nominee has taken in a primary populated by conservatives.

There are more than enough comments, particularly on immigration and women's issues, to keep the Obama campaign busy this fall.

For example: On immigration, Romney has called Arizona's hard-line law a "model" and has said that "the answer is self-deportation." And when the primary briefly revolved around birth control, Romney said he supported legislation that would let employers deny contraceptive health coverage to their workers and said he would "get rid of" Planned Parenthood.

And that's not including his regular rich-guy remarks (befriending owners of Nascar and NFL teams, driving multiple Cadillacs, waging $10,000 bets, firing people, not being concerned about the poor, and scoffing at $370,000, to name half of them).

These types of comments are probably what Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom had in mind when he famously said last month that the candidate can shake up his more extreme positions "like an Etch A Sketch" to face President Obama and appeal to more moderate voters. Fehrnstrom's answer was in response to a question about whether Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have forced Romney to stray "so far to the right" that he risks losing moderates.

"I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes," he said. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and start all over again."

Democrats' reaction to Fehrnstrom's candid answer — round-the-clock ridicule that has lingered for weeks — indicates that they don't plan on letting go of the things that Romney wants to reset.

But Romney still has options, and he's already been branded a flip-flopper on issues such as abortion and the health care mandate, so repositioning on immigration and women's issues — to appeal to two key voting blocs — could help him.

Bob Quasius, the founder of Café Con Leche Republicans, an immigration-reform group that endorsed Newt Gingrich in the primary, said Romney's "self-deportation" comment and embrace of Arizona's immigration law will haunt him in the fall, but that the candidate can win Latinos back with "more pragmatic, practical solutions" on immigration.

"Romney's made some comments that I think will hurt him as he tries to appeal to Latinos," Quasius said.

Specifically, Quasius said Romney should fire Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who advises Romney and helped write strict immigration laws, and who has said that if Romney were president, five million undocumented immigrants could be deported.

"Avoid all associations with extremists," Quasius said. "Obama will hang Kris Kobach around his neck in the general election."

Similarly, Romney is advised by mainstream Republicans to avoid talking about women's health issues — like Sandra Fluke, abortion or birth control — and focus on the economy solely, so as not to risk putting off female voters who consider those matters personal. GOP pollster Linda DiVall said that focusing on women's issues is "not helpful at all" for Romney.

"That's not the debate that people want to hear right now," said Rae Lynne Chornenky, the president of the National Federation of Republican Women. "Those are not visions that Americans look for in their leaders."

Former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich, a surrogate for Romney, suggested this week that Romney will be able to erase some of his more extreme views on women's issues once his conservative opponents are out of the picture.

"When you have one-on-one general election, and they see, again, are reminded of Governor Romney's real views, that gender gap will dissipate rather quickly," Ehrlich said on CNN.

The "gender gap" — the difference between how men and women view Romney and Obama — favors the president overwhelmingly now. Polls out this week gave Obama a 25-point lead over Romney among women, and notable support from women in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida that will be key to the election.

The Romney campaign will creak open a window into its strategy after Easter when it's revealed where the former Massachusetts governor will be campaigning before Pennsylvania's primary on April 24. The suburbs of Philadelphia, for example, are home to hordes of independent voters who have been targeted by both parties.

A recent poll by Quinnipiac reported that while Romney trails Santorum in Pennsylvania by a few points, he leads the state's native son by 16 points among moderates, and is about even with him among women.

"Pennsylvania is a critical swing state, so the Republican primary winner wants to make a good showing in April to bolster chances for success in November," Tim Malloy, a Quinnipiac pollster, said in the survey.

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