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.
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.