The difficulties Mitt Romney faces in wooing Hispanic voters this year were underscored Tuesday when the Republicans' top Hispanic outreach official said the former Massachusetts governor is "still deciding" his position on immigration.
GOP officials moved quickly to walk back the remarks, saying that it was up to Mr. Romney's campaign to deal with specific policy matters on immigration — but for a candidate fighting an image of flip-flopping on big issues, the damage was done.
"As a candidate, to my understanding, he is still deciding what his position on immigration is," Bettina Inclan, the head of the GOP Hispanic outreach effort, said in a meeting with reporters designed to highlight the party's efforts to win over Hispanics in six battleground states.
The comment, though, quickly overshadowed that message and spilled over into reporters' Twitter feeds, where it spread like wildfire, opening Mr. Romney to attacks from the Obama campaign and prompting the Republican National Committee to go on the defense.
"As far as what Gov. Romney's positions are on immigration, that is for him and his campaign to talk about," said one RNC official. Ms. Inclan's remark, he said, had been "misconstrued."
"We never said the governor hasn't decided his position on immigration," he said.
The Romney campaign also tried to clean up the mess, arguing that it is Mr. Obama who has not followed through on promises to overhaul the nation's immigration system and who has adopted policies that have failed to improve the economic prospects of Hispanics.
"With a record like that, President Obama has no choice but to spend millions of dollars trying to spin his failed leadership and broken promises," said Albert Martinez, a Romney campaign spokesman.
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, used the episode to highlight what it considers as Mr. Romney's liabilities with Hispanic voters — including the former Massachusetts governor's vow to veto the Dream Act and his embrace of immigration hard-liners, includingKansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
"Over the past year, Mitt Romney has proven time and time again that he is the most extreme presidential candidate in modern history on immigration," said Gabriela Domenzain, director of Hispanic press for the Obama campaign. "His position may be inconvenient, but it has been clear."
Since former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania dropped out of the GOP race last month, clearing the way to the Republican nomination for the former Massachusetts governor, Mr. Romney has indicated a willingness to look at other immigration options — in particular a proposal that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is drafting that would provide some illegal immigrant children a path to legal status.
He also has tried to reach out to Hispanics with an economic message, arguing that they have lost 300,000 jobs on the Obama administration's watch.
Ms. Inclan, a longtime Republican strategist and former head of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, tried to stick with that economic message Tuesday, saying the election is a referendum on Mr. Obama's record and that "the No. 1 issue is jobs and the economy."
But the Romney campaign still faces doubts over its Hispanics game plan: Polls show Mr. Romney lagging far behind Mr. Obama among the fast-growing ethnic bloc.
At the earlier meeting with reporters, Ms. Inclan said it is her understanding that Mr. Romney is still weighing how to approach the issue. "To assume the only thing we care about is immigration is false," she said.
After the meeting, she turned to Twitter and wrote: "I misspoke, Romney's position on immigration is clear."
Hispanics have emerged as a key bloc in presidential elections. George W. Bush walked away with 40 percent or more of the Hispanic vote in his successful 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. In 2008, Hispanics went heavily for Mr. Obama, who secured 67 percent of their vote, compared with 31 percent for Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
In a nationwide Fox News poll in March, 70 percent of Hispanics said they would vote for Mr. Obama and 14 percent for Mr. Romney in a head-to-head matchup. Meanwhile, nine out of 10 Hispanic U.S. citizens said they support the Dream Act, while eight in 10 said they support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
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