GOP Hispanic outreach hits snag

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Republicans underscored their difficulties in wooing Latino voters in this year’s elections on Tuesday when the party’s top Hispanic outreach official said it was unclear what likely presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s stance would be on the critical issue of immigration.

Party officials tried to clarify, 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 already was done, with the remarks catching on like wildfire across the Web.

“As a candidate, to my understanding, he is still deciding what his position on immigration is,” Bettina Inclan, head of the outreach effort, said in a meeting with reporters that the RNC organized to highlight the new Hispanic outreach directors that the party has put in six battleground states.

The comment, though, quickly made its way onto reporter Twitter feeds, opening up Mr. Romney to attacks from the Obama campaign and prompting another RNC official to clarify the remark.

“As far as what Governor Romney’s positions are on immigration, that is for him and his campaign to talk about,” the official said, saying the first remark has been “misconstrued.”

“We never said the governor hasn’t decided his position on immigration.”

The Romney campaign also tried to clean up the mess, arguing that it is Mr. Obama who has not followed through on his promise 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 Romney campaign spokesman Albert Martinez.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, pounced on Ms. Inclan’s remarks, using the episode to highlight Mr. Romney’s vow to veto “Dream Act” legislation that gives citizenship to some children of illegal immigrants, his belief in the notion of “self-deportation” and his embrace of hard-liners against illegal immigration such as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

They also highlighted how Mr. Romney praised Arizona’s immigration law and said that the state’s e-verify law is a “model” for the rest of the nation.

“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 his bid last month, clearing the way for Mr. Romney to win the nomination, the former Massachusetts governor has opened the door to take a look at other immigration options — in particular a proposal Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is drafting that would provide some illegal immigrant children a path to legal status — as opposed to the path to citizenship supported by Mr. Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

He also has tried to reach out to Hispanics with an economic message, arguing that they’ve lost 300,000 jobs on the Obama administration’s watch.

Ms. Inclan tried to stick with that “economy” message on Tuesday, saying that the election is a referendum on Mr. Obama’s record in office and that “the No. 1 issue is jobs and the economy.”

But the party still faces questions over its game plan to woo Hispanic voters after polls showed Mr. Romney lagging far behind Mr. Obama among the fast-growing ethnic bloc and after Mr. Romney has laid out such a tough line on immigration.

Ms. Inclan insisted that it is her understanding that Mr. Romney is still weighing how to approach to issue.

“To assume the only thing we care about is immigration is false,” she said. After the meeting, she also turned to Twitter where she wrote: “I misspoke, Romney’s position on immigration is clear.”

Hispanics are emerging as a key voting bloc in presidential elections. George W. Bush walked away with 40 percent or more of the Hispanic vote in his successful 2000 and 2004 president elections. But in 2008, Hispanics went heavily for Mr. Obama, who secured 67 percent of their vote, compared with just 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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