PHOENIX — With this weekend’s endorsement by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Mitt Romney has amassed the backing of what could be considered the trifecta of hard-liners on illegal immigration — and he will put that to the test with Hispanic voters Tuesday in Arizona’s GOP primary.
Mr. Romney also has the support of former California Gov. Pete Wilson and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who together with Ms. Brewer have led state immigration crackdown efforts during the past two decades. Their backing solidifies the former Massachusetts governor’s credentials as the toughest candidate on the issue.
“What is he thinking? What is Mitt Romney thinking by aligning himself with all of these politicians?” Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, said on a call arranged Monday by the Democratic National Committee to attack Mr. Romney.
“He’s out-pandering the rest of them,” said Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez, Texas Democrat.
Mr. Romney’s strong support of Arizona’s law, which he called a “model” for other states during last week’s debate here, does play well among most rank-and-file Republican voters in Arizona, and it may have helped him sew up the state’s primary.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who also takes a strict line on immigration enforcement, has focused instead on winning the Michigan’s primary Tuesday. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich haven’t paid much attention to the state.
Turnout is key
That makes Tuesday’s vote a test of turnout and percentages.
Hispanics made up just 7 percent of Arizona’s GOP primary electorate in 2008, when Mr. Romney lost to Arizona’s own senator, John McCain. Mr. Romney won 23 percent of Hispanic voters that year. The questions this year are how many Hispanics turn out, and what share of their support goes to Mr. Romney.
Hispanic students advocating for legalization canvassed in the Phoenix area Saturday soliciting signatures on petitions demanding that the GOP change its stances. As they dropped off the petitions with the state Republican Party on Monday, they said they came across several Hispanics who decided to change their registration from Republican to independent as a protest of the rhetoric.
“As soon as we told them Jan Brewer endorsed Romney, they were like, ‘Oh, no,’ ” said Cesar Vargas, one of the former students who is in the country illegally and who is pushing for legalization.
Mr. Romney has done well among Hispanics in earlier primaries. He won 46 percent of all votes in Florida last month, but won an even higher share of Hispanics. He also won Nevada’s caucuses this month, despite predictions by some in the immigrant rights community that voters there would punish him.
“These groups keep moving the goal post,” said Jose Fuentes, former attorney general of Puerto Rico, who is co-chairman of Mr. Romney’s Hispanic steering committee. “Gov. Romney won Hispanics with more than 50 percent of the vote in Florida, where 15 percent of all voters were Hispanic. Not only that, but his message motivated a turnout 4 percent higher than expected or even the last presidential primary. His message is resonating. Democrats are overreaching here.”
Some analysts have said that the Republicans’ eventual nominee will need the support of at least 40 percent of Hispanic voters in November to win the White House. President Bush crossed that threshold in his 2004 re-election, while Mr. McCain won 31 percent in his losing bid in 2008.
Multiple issues at play
Mr. Fuentes said Hispanics aren’t single-issue voters, and he said they are embracing Mr. Romney because of his credentials on the economy.
“Small-business owners, especially Hispanic female-owned business, which is the largest growing segment of the small-business community, will relate to his experience and results-oriented approach,” he said. “Immigration is important to Hispanic voters, but not their top priority.”
Mr. Romney has said he would veto the Dream Act, though he does support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant young adults who promise to serve in the U.S. military. Other than that, he has said he supports no special new citizenship rights for illegal immigrants, instead proposing that they have a grace period to get their affairs in order before going back to their home countries.
He also has said he wants to expand opportunities for legal immigration, particularly for entrepreneurs.
Democrats said they expect to make Mr. Romney — or any Republican nominee — pay in November over the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada hinted to reporters Monday that he saw signs of racism behind Republicans’ moves in recent years. He pointed in particular to Senate Republicans’ effort to block a Hispanic woman, Mari Carmen Aponte, from being confirmed as Mr. Obama’s ambassador to El Salvador.
He said his own race in 2010, when he survived a bruising re-election fight against Republican tea party favorite Sharron Angle, should be a warning to the GOP. Ms. Angle took a stiff stance on illegal immigration, while Mr. Reid rallied Hispanic voters by promising to hold a vote on the Dream Act in the Senate.
“People all over this country saw what happened in Nevada, when someone like me who had been reasonable, and doing something about immigration, tried to do the right thing, and they went after me with such venom,” he said. “That’s the only way I can describe it, and it backfired on them.”