The past two weeks have offered Mitt Romney numerous opportunities to clarify his stance on immigration — and every time the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has taken a pass.
Looking to run out the clock before the November election without getting entangled in tough issues, Mr. Romney has settled on a go-to answer when he's asked about immigration, health care, women's pay or other thorny policy questions: President Obama is trying to change the conversation away from his record on the economy.
"Last time around, as you recall, his campaign slogan was hope and change," Mr. Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Pennsylvania. "Now I think he'd like to change it to 'hoping to change the subject.' He's not wanting to talk about the economy like I want to talk to the economy, because what I want to do — I want to get America working again. I want to create more good jobs for Americans."
While both parties generally agree November's election will turn on the nation's economic health, some Republicans warn that Mr. Romney will have to eventually face some of the tough policy issues he's been putting off - and none may be more critical than immigration.
"I believe Mitt Romney has to provide a specific plan on immigration that ties to a broader vision, and to a coherent economic framework," said Mark McKinnon, a former campaign adviser to President George W. Bush. "If he does, I think he can win. If he doesn't, I think it could be fatal."
President Obama turned up the heat on Mr. Romney two weeks ago when he directed the Homeland Security Department to stop deporting many young illegal immigrants. On Monday, the Supreme Court thrust the issue further into the national spotlight when it struck down most of Arizona's tough immigration law.
Since the Obama announcement, Mr. Romney has refused to say whether he would keep Mr. Obama's directive in place while he and Congress worked on a reform bill.
Then in the wake of the high court's ruling, a Romney spokesman dodged questions when asked to explain which parts of the Arizona law his boss backed.
"I think the common thread on his immigration responses since the primary has been that he is talking in politicalspeak, which means he has perfected the art of saying something without saying anything," said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist who served as co-chairwoman of Sen. John McCain's National Hispanic Advisory Council during his 2008 presidential campaign.
"I think Mitt Romney can tap dance his way around the immigration issue until November, but he will pay a price with it. Not only with Latinos, but with other voters. Trepidation, ambiguity and equivocation are not qualities that the American people look for in a president," she said.
More than four months from Election Day, Mr. Romney still appears to have his work cut out for him when it comes to wooing Hispanic voters. A USA Today-Gallup poll released this week shows that he trails Mr. Obama by a 66 percent to 25 percent margin among this increasingly important slice of the electorate.
Speaking to supporters in Salem, Va., on Tuesday, Mr. Romney once again glossed over the topic of immigration, arguing that the only reason the Supreme Court had to get involved in the Arizona law is that Mr. Obama has failed to lead on the issue.
Then he laid out his plans for how he will handle the fallout from the Supreme Court's coming ruling on the constitutionality of the president's health care overhaul.
"If Obamacare is not deemed constitutional, then the first 3 1/2 years of this president's term will have been wasted on something that's not helped the American people," the former Massachusetts governor said. "If it is deemed to stand, then I will tell you one thing, we are going to have to have a president, and I'm that one, who is going to get rid of Obamacare. We are going to stop it on Day One."
Mr. Romney will be on Northern Virginia on Wednesday - wrapping up a two-day swing that underscores the state's importance in the Electoral College math this year.
The latest polls show the two men running neck-and-neck in a state that went for Mr. Obama in 2008 after decades of backing Republican presidential candidates.
Mr. Romney's reluctance to stake out a clear position on the recent immigration news represents a dramatic shift from the Republican primaries, when he emerged as the most ardent opponent of amnesty - vowing to veto a Democratic version of the Dream Act and using the issue against his Republican rivals.
When Texas Gov. Rick Perry emerged as his toughest competition, Mr. Romney attacked his decision to sign a bill granting in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. He also pounced on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich after the former House speaker suggested he was open to granting some sort of legal status to many illegal immigrants with deep roots in the country.
"I'm not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go," Mr. Romney said in a November debate. "The principle is that we're not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally."
Ms. Navarro said that until he says otherwise, Mr. Romney could be boxed in by what he said during the Republican primary.
"He said some things during the primary which have put him in a difficult position, but there is still a lot of room for him to fill in the blanks and for him to try to climb out of that box," she said. "The problem is that unless he says more on immigration, he is going to be judged by what he said during the primary."
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