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Moving to the middle

Throughout the Republican primary season, Mr. Romney staked out the stiffest pro-enforcement stance any major party political nominee had ever taken on illegal immigration, including calling for those in the country illegally to self-deport.

Until Monday, he repeatedly avoided saying what would happen to those who gained tentative status under Mr. Obama’s non-deportation policy.

Asked four times in an appearance at a candidates forum hosted by Spanish-language network Univision and five times in an interview with Telemundo, Mr. Romney said only that he would push for broader immigration reform.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group, said Mr. Romney is trying to make a careful appeal to Hispanic voters “without provoking a backlash from the hard right.”

But Mr. Sharry said Mr. Romney has left big questions unanswered.

“The answer itself is carefully worded so that he leaves himself the option of closing down the initiative for those who haven’t applied yet,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group. “There’s a big difference between keeping in place work permits for 100,000 who have already received them and keeping an initiative going that promises to protect 1.4 million people.”

1.7 million potential stays

The Migration Policy Institute has estimated that more than 1.7 million illegal immigrants could qualify for deferred action. The New York Times reported last week that about 100,000 illegal immigrants have applied for deferred action but just 29 have been granted stays.

Mr. Romney’s announcement also puts him on the opposite side of the issue from Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state and architect of Arizona’s immigration crackdown laws, who has been an adviser to the Republican presidential nominee.

Mr. Kobach is representing 10 immigration agents who sued the Obama administration in August to try to overturn the two-year freeze on deportations. Mr. Kobach also told The Washington Times over the summer that he thought the directive is illegal.

He said then he thought Mr. Romney agreed, but was waiting for a more opportune time to say so publicly.

“When you are in an athletic event and you are winning, you are ahead, you don’t take risk. Only someone who is losing and needs to take a risky strategy to gain ground,” Mr. Kobach said at the time. “My guess is that if there is no need to give a very specific position and that can be addressed later if and when he wins the White House, maybe that is the idea.”

Mr. Kobach didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Seth McLaughlin reported from Washington.