Can Mitt Romney Change the Subject With Hispanic Voters?

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After tacking to the right on immigration in the Republican primary, he is now attempting to woo Hispanic voters without mentioning the issue.

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Reuters

Updated, 6:18 p.m.

Mitt Romney addressed a roomful of Hispanic leaders Wednesday -- and he didn't mention immigration once.

Instead, Romney used the gathering of the Latino Coalition, a conservative Hispanic group, as the venue for the rollout of his education policy, calling for the expansion of school vouchers and attacking President Obama as a puppet of teachers' unions. He described a crisis in American education whose weight is especially borne by minorities and called it "the civil-rights issue of our era." But he made no particular mention of the challenges facing the Hispanic community.

As Romney's speech was winding down, a young woman seated at one of the luncheon tables attempted to raise the subject for him.

Lucia Allain, a 20-year-old undocumented Peruvian immigrant and activist, was quickly ushered out of the room, her outburst unintelligible. "My main point," she said afterward, "was to ask him: You're talking about dreams, the American dream, how every student deserves opportunity in this country. Why can't I continue my dream?" As she spoke, a fellow activist stood behind her with a poster reading, "Veto Romney, Not the DREAM Act."

Romney has said he would veto that legislation, a Senate proposal to allow illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to achieve legal status -- one of several rightward gestures on immigration he made during the Republican primary that now poses a challenge as he attempts to woo Hispanic voters as a general-election candidate.

Thus far, Romney's strategy appears to be to stick to his major overall themes -- education, the economy -- and hope they resonate with all voters, including Hispanics. But advocates, including those in his own party, say he won't get far without addressing immigration head-on at some point.

The evidence was right there at the venue where Romney spoke Wednesday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who is one of the Republican Party's brightest hopes and a top contender to be Romney's running mate, spoke a couple of hours after Romney and addressed the issue frontally.

Rubio spoke movingly of the parents and grandparents who'd sacrificed so their children could have better lives. He called the country's immigration system "broken" and lamented the plight of "hundreds of thousands of young people that have grown up among us, who find themselves in an undocumented status through no fault of their own ... and yet, because of partisan politics, we've been unable to figure out a way to accommodate them within the confines of our heritage as a nation of laws, but also our legacy as a nation of immigrants."

"We are but a generation removed from a very different life," Rubio added. "It's not fair for the story of America to end with us."

Romney has yet to take a position on Rubio's proposal for a Republican version of the DREAM Act, which faces long odds in the Senate. He has touted the idea of "self-deportation" for illegals -- immigrants' advocates view this as a euphemism for making life so unpleasant for the undocumented that they are forced to leave -- and called for a fence along the Southern border.

To be sure, immigration is not the only issue of importance to Hispanic voters. In one recent national poll, conducted by charter-school advocates, 73 percent of Latinos called improving the economy an extremely high priority, while 61 percent cited education; just 37 percent put reforming immigration at that level of importance. But the perception that Republicans have singled out Hispanics with their harsh immigration rhetoric remains a major obstacle for the party -- a sign, to many, that the GOP would rather placate its vocal anti-immigrant base than expand its electoral tent.

Now, Hispanic Republicans hope Romney can repair the damage. But to do that, they say, he'll have to confront the elephant in the room. "I have no doubt Hispanics have been alienated during this campaign" by the candidates' immigration rhetoric, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, told Newsweek recently. "But now there's an opportunity for Gov. Romney to have a sincere conversation about what we can do and why."

Ana Navarro, a Florida-based Republican consultant and Rubio adviser, said Romney is going to have to talk about immigration at some point. "There's no doubt that education is a top-priority issue to Latinos," she said. "But immigration is one of those issues that does not go away."

For Hispanic Republicans like Navarro, it has been frustrating to watch the party squander its potential opportunity with a group that stands to play an ever greater role in the electorate in the coming years. George W. Bush made major inroads with Hispanics, thanks in part to his moderate stance on immigration, but those gains have been largely wiped out in the anti-immigration fervor that has engulfed much of the party since then. A new poll released Wednesday showed Obama leading Romney by 34 points among Hispanics nationally.

Romney has left himself some wiggle room on immigration by quietly declining, even during the heat of the primary, to embrace the mass deportations favored by the far right. Rubio, in an interview Wednesday with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, said Romney's support for "self-deportation" should be read as an alternative to the government rounding up and deporting immigrants. But even if Romney does start trying to soft-pedal his immigration stance, it's doubtful he'll get away with it. In 2008, John McCain's long history of moderation on immigration did him little good after he tacked rightward on immigration to win the GOP presidential primary -- and Democrats spent millions on TV and radio ads reminding Hispanic voters of that fact.

Romney has agreed to speak at a conference of Hispanic officials in Florida next month, on the same program as Obama, it was announced Wednesday. That will provide him with another opportunity to tell the Latino community where he stands; the question is whether he will take it.

One of the members of the audience for Romney's speech Wednesday was Roger Campos, the president and CEO of the Minority Business RoundTable and chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Youth Entrepreneurship and Education Fund. He praised Romney's speech for its education proposals, which he described as crucial to the future of the American economy. But as for whether Romney could win Hispanic votes, Campos was doubtful -- because of immigration.

"It is a real challenge with Hispanic voters because of the immigration-reform issue," he said. The problem, he said, is the message Republicans have sent with proposals that seem "knee-jerk reactionary," like building a border fence.

Eventually, "I'm sure [Romney] will deal with that issue and address it," Campos said.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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