- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 1, 2012

LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney took a hard line on illegal immigration, was labeled anti-immigrant and had a national network of Hispanic Republicans come out against him, yet he won Florida’s primary by carrying more than half of Hispanics who voted - better than he did among whites.

But his primary opponents and immigrant-rights advocates say he will have a tougher time winning Hispanics in Nevada, which holds caucuses this weekend, and in Colorado and Arizona, which vote later this month and where immigration is a much hotter topic.

“If I were a Latino Republican, I would really cross him off my list,” said Fernando Romero, president of the nonpartisan Las Vegas-based group Hispanics in Politics, who said Mr. Romney’s stances on immigration probably make him unacceptable to any Hispanic voter who prioritizes the issue.

Mr. Romney has staked out what analysts said would be, if he wins the nomination, the strictest position a major-party presidential nominee has ever had on the issue.

He has vowed to veto the Dream Act, which would legalize illegal-immigrant children and young adults who have attended college classes or joined the military. For other illegal immigrants, Mr. Romney has called for them to take time to get their affairs in order and then be sent home, where they could join the regular lines, but not be given a special path to citizenship.

Those stances didn’t hurt Mr. Romney in Florida, where he won the support of 54 percent of Hispanics who voted in Tuesday’s primary, according to exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and the broadcast networks. Among the white vote, Mr. Romney won 45 percent.

Second-place finisher Newt Gingrich trailed well behind Mr. Romney with 29 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Mr. Gingrich and immigrant rights groups attacked Mr. Romney in Florida, arguing that his rhetoric on immigration crossed the line. Somos Republicans, which bills itself the largest Hispanic grass-roots GOP organization in the country, called on Hispanic leaders to pull their support, and Mr. Gingrich released an ad calling Mr. Romney “anti-immigrant.”

That drew a stern rebuke from the GOP’s top Hispanic lawmaker, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who didn’t endorse in the race, but said the charge was out of bounds.

November fight

Tibi Ellis, a Las Vegas resident who founded Hispanics for McCain in 2008, but who has dropped out of the GOP to be a nonpartisan advocate for Hispanic voting, said she thinks the immigration fight will wait until the general election.

“If you saw Florida, immigration wasn’t an issue for primary voters. Even for the Latino community, it wasn’t an issue,” she said. “Going to the general, this is where these candidates are going to be challenged because what they say during the primary election is going to be held accountable during the general election.”

But Maribel Hastings, a senior adviser at America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group in Washington, said the tone of the immigration debate will hurt Republicans in the West.

“In these states, the negative tone that has dominated the debate among Republicans, combined with Republican support for anti-immigrant state bills and the failure to pass sensible solutions like immigration reform and the Dream Act, are resented by a Latino electorate for whom immigration is a defining issue,” she said in an analysis she wrote Wednesday.

Mr. Romero said immigration plays differently in Florida, where Cuban-Americans, who have special immigration rules, dominate. But for the Western states, where Mexican-Americans dominate, Mr. Romero said it will be an issue.

“Not only in Nevada, but in the 49 other states,” Mr. Romero said. “Romney is trying to play it very coyly by dropping names such as Rubio, [Nevada Gov. Brian] Sandoval and [New Mexico Gov. Susana] Martinez to basically buy the Latino vote. And in Miami, Florida, you may be able to throw the name Rubio out and purchase that vote. You cannot in 49 other states.”

In a recent debate, Mr. Romney named Mrs. Martinez and Mr. Sandoval as potential members of a Romney administration. Neither has endorsed Mr. Romney.

Mr. Romero said he invited Mr. Romney to address Hispanics in Politics, but he has declined.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania didn’t reply to invitations. On Wednesday, he picked up the endorsement of former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a leader in the immigration-crackdown movement.

Mr. Gingrich also was invited, but he instead has scheduled his own meeting with Hispanic leaders.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas did accept the offer to speak and addressed the group Wednesday, arguing that immigration issue is complicated.

The Texan signaled his support for a long path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants, but said for those found to be breaking the law while living in the U.S. illegally, “serious consideration should be given” to deporting them.

“My suggestion is open for discussion and criticism and changing it,” he said.

Dream path

Mr. Paul said he also opposes the Dream Act, not because it grants legal status to illegal immigrants, but because it would give them subsidies for education, and it is unfair to impose higher taxes for that purpose. Various versions of the Dream Act would give illegal immigrant students in-state tuition rates at public colleges.

“It’s hard to make up for past sins and errors, but to pass the penalty on to another group right now - it’s sort of like, say, there’s been abuse of Indians for 200 years ago. Well, I don’t think you should be taxed because our forefathers abused the Indians.”

The Dream Act has been a major sticking point for Mr. Romney, too.

Some illegal-immigrant students who could benefit from it have dogged him on the campaign trail, heckling him from afar or, when they can get close enough, confronting him.

“I’m undocumented. I’m wondering why aren’t you supporting my dream,” one woman asked him at an event in New York.

Ms. Ellis said they were vocal in Florida, but they ended up not having an impact, in part because they can’t vote and because the issue didn’t resonate enough with the GOP primary electorate.

“They evidently don’t vote. They’re dreamers,” she said. “They have a point. We need to do something about it. But should a candidate spend resources, time, when at the end of the day a candidate wants to be elected? It’s all about votes?”

Like Mr. Romney, Sen. John McCain won 54 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida’s primary in 2008 on his way to winning the GOP nomination. But those results didn’t translate to the election in November, when Barack Obama won Hispanics in the state 57 percent to 42 percent, and won them nationwide 67 percent to 31 percent.

President George W. Bush won more than 40 percent of Hispanic votes in his 2004 re-election bid, and analysts say that’s a benchmark for the next GOP nominee if he is to have a good chance of winning the White House.

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