GOP front-runner Mitt Romney’s pledge to stick to the positions he has taken on the primary trail could hurt him in a general election matchup with President Obama, particularly with Hispanic voters over the question of immigration.
Immigration is perhaps the one issue where the former Massachusetts governor has staked out the most conservative position in the Republican presidential field. His insistence last week - trying to tamp down a flap over his dedication to conservative principles - that he will carry his conservative stances into a general election essentially cuts off any chance he had to pivot this fall with Hispanic voters, who polls say have all but written off Mr. Romney.
In the grind-it-out battle for the Republican nomination, Mr. Romney has vowed to veto the so-called Dream Act that would give citizenship to many children of illegal immigrants, called Arizona’s strict immigration law a “model” for other states and welcomed endorsements from hard-liners against illegal immigration.
“We have to be honest and recognize that he is handicapped because of what was said during the debates in the primary,” said Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration official who runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “He made statements basically that people who are here illegally, everyone, would have to go back, and he would create a system where they’d be encouraged to leave and self-deport.”
Mr. Aguilar said Mr. Romney still has room to embrace more moderate legal immigration policies, such as a demand-based guest-worker permit program or an increase in annual legal immigration limits. And he said Mr. Obama is also vulnerable on the issue, having failed to make good on his promise to Hispanics to pursue an immigration reform bill his first year in office.
A do-over seemed possible last week until a top aide to Mr. Romney compared the move from the primary to the general election as a political Etch-A-Sketch - the children’s toy where words and drawings can be erased with a shake of the hand, and rewritten.
Mr. Romney moved quickly to disown the analogy, saying he will take the conservative positions from the primary and run on them in the general election.
Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration reform group, said the incident spells trouble for Mr. Romney.
“Unless the Etch-a-Sketch comes with a time machine that let’s him go back a year, I think he’s toast,” Mr. Sharry said. “I don’t know how he gets out the corner he painted himself into.”
Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate and a powerful voting bloc in presidential elections. George W. Bush secured 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his successful 2000 and 2004 presidential runs. That changed in 2008 as Hispanics swung toward Mr. Obama, who pulled in 67 percent of their vote, compared to just 31 percent for Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
In a nationwide Fox News poll released this month, 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.
Alberto Martinez, a Romney campaign spokesman, said Hispanic voters care about issues other than immigration, and will be drawn to Mr. Romney’s plans for the economy.
“Unlike President Obama, who has sought to divide and pander to the Hispanic community, Gov. Romney will appeal to Hispanics just as he appeals to all voters - by outlining an optimistic vision of economic growth, freedom and opportunity,” Mr. Martinez said.
Still, the troubling poll numbers have generated calls from some in the GOP for Mr. Romney to tap Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida - who is Cuban-American - as his running mate. But Mr. Aguilar questioned whether the Florida lawmaker would have much appeal to Hispanics in the Southwest and elsewhere.