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Posted at 08:50 AM ET, 11/28/2011

Will Romney’s immigration stance become his Latino problem?

In dealing with the issue of immigration, Mitt Romney’s 2012 strategy is exactly like his 2008 strategy — run to the right, liberally use the words “amnesty” and “magnet,” and occasionally refer to illegal immigrants as simply “illegals.”

The issue has emerged as one of the few where Romney has tried to credibly claim to be the most conservative candidate and where he has seemed to lose sight of the general election, where Latino voters will be crucial.
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to a group of workers at Nationwide Insurance Company, Wednesday Nov. 23, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Steve Pope - AP)

So far, the strategy worked well with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom Romney went after in an Oct. 8 debate.

“You put in place a magnet to draw illegals into the state, which was giving $100,000 of tuition credit to illegals that come into this country,” Romney said then, criticizing Perry’s support of a Texas law that grants in-state tuition to students who were brought here illegally as children.

Now, with the rise of Newt Gingrich, who has staked out a position on immigration that the former speaker of the House said would likely bring some heat, Romney is going to the same playbook he used against Perry, and the same one he used in 2008 against Sen. John McCain.

“Amnesty is a magnet,” Romney said in last week’s CNN national security debate, criticizing Gingrich’s approach to immigration, which would allow millions of undocumented immigrants who have settled for decades in America to become legal residents.

“People respond to incentives, and if you can become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you’ll do so.”

Clearly sensing that he had an opening, Romney repeated the same attack in Iowa last week, saying that Gingrich’s approach was the “wrong course for a Republican debate.”

He has also started sending out mailers in Iowa, saying that he is the “strongest Republican to beat Barack Obama and illegal immigration,” according to the Des Moines Register.

Yet if recent editorials are any judge — one from the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and another from the Union Leader — at least a certain segment of conservatives has not been turned off by Gingrich’s approach to immigration.

And it isn’t clear that Romney can do to Gingrich what he did to Perry.

“Unfortunately Romney has a history of throwing around the a-word, as in amnesty, without defining what it means. It is still toxic among Republican voters, including Hispanic Republican voters, but none of the Republican primary candidates support amnesty or a full pardon,” said Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist. “In this case Romney is trying to quickly neutralize Gingrich on immigration during his ascension. But there are problems with this: For one, it’s Newt, and two, Hispanics have long memories.”

Aides to Gingrich, who is campaigning in South Carolina on Monday, said the former Georgia congressman “is looking for ways in a GOP primary to expand the coalition that supports Republicans, and that includes Hispanics and Latino Americans.”

“We were concerned for five seconds but then we realized it is not 2006 and not 2008 when these types of strategies of using code words and politically charged words yielded some short term results,” R.C. Hammond, a Gingrich spokesman said. “Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney can go out and say this sounds like amnesty, but to voters, they sound like they are pandering.”

Gingrich aides, who said that the Gingrich is actively courting Latino leaders and is nearly fluent in Spanish, also point out that Romney’s 2007 position seemed to be not far off from what Gingrich outlined in a 10-point plan on his Web site. In a 2007 “Meet the Press” interview, Romney said, “Those people who had come here illegally and are in this country, the 12 million or so that are here illegally, should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship, but they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here for the rest of their lives merely by virtue of having come here illegally.”

The conventional wisdom is that a candidate has to win at least 40 percent of the Latino vote to win the White House — Bush won 44 percent, which helped bolster what was largely a get-out-the-base strategy.

Bush, and McCain, who won 31 percent of the Latino vote in 2008 and took heat for backing comprehensive immigration reform, both came from states with high Latino populations, an advantage that Romney, if he is the nominee, won’t have.

“Romney is not going to win 40 percent of the Latino vote, the way he is looking now,” said Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, a polling firm, which recently found that Republican candidates aren’t resonating with Latinos yet. “He is moving far to the right. He doesn’t understand that the rhetoric turns people off. It just sounds like they are hating on people’s parents or grandparents.”

Sanchez added that “because of the ascension of Latino independents and Republicans, candidates have to be very sensitive as to how they talk about this issue.”

“They can’t use the term illegals,” Sanchez said. “At best it’s undocumented immigrant, at worst it’s illegals and illegal aliens, and both are pejorative and condescending.”

Democrats have slammed Romney, and on this topic seem to be siding with Gingrich, who called for a more “humane” approach to immigration policy.

Asked in November what his strategy would be in drawing contrasts between his administration and a Republican nominee on issues such as immigration, President Obama suggested it wouldn’t be hard.

“We may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim,” Obama said in a interview with Univision News. “We won’t even comment on them, we’ll just run those in a loop on Univision and Telemundo, and people can make up their own minds.”

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