He now must weigh how to undo the damage without angering conservatives who are on the lookout for a flip-flop by a candidate known for his evolving views.
At a Monday campaign event with Rubio, Romney did not take a position on the plan.
“I’m taking a look at his proposal,” Romney said. “It has many features to commend it, but it’s something that we’re studying.”
Several conservatives have already blasted Rubio’s plan as a form of “amnesty,” but aides to the senator say he is lobbying key players and media personalities on the right to hold their fire.
Many Democrats have dismissed the push by Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who was elected in 2010 as a conservative darling after adopting hard-line positions on illegal immigration. Some critics on the left say his proposal would create a second class of Americans, permitted to live in the United States but unable to achieve the full rights of citizenship.
But his efforts appear to be further driving a wedge between Obama and his restive Hispanic activist supporters.
The senator conferred Wednesday afternoon with several leading members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, for example, including Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), one of the most vocal critics of Obama’s deportation policies.
Last week, Rubio sat at a dinner party beside Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, one of the country’s most prominent Hispanic advocacy groups, and the two discussed ways to work together on policy.
“It’s clear that there wouldn’t be an effort to be talking about this right now if it weren’t for Senator Rubio engaging on this,” Murguia said. “We need to know whether the president can use this as an opportunity.”
Rubio’s outreach to Pacheco — who was brought to the United States illegally when she was 8 — and other young undocumented immigrants came after they had been asking for months without success for a chance to meet with Obama. The senator first called Pacheco on her cellphone, and the two spoke for about a half-hour. He later met with a small group at Miami-Dade College.
“He said, ‘If you feel at any point that this is something you guys cannot support, let me know,’ ” Pacheco recalled.
The president’s challenge has been evident in recent days during tense encounters between top White House aides and Hispanic leaders, who have continued to press for the president to simply sign an executive order preventing the deportations of any people who would qualify for the Dream Act. In one heated session last week between Congressional Hispanic Caucus members and domestic policy adviser Cecilia Munoz, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) grew so frustrated that she walked out, according to people familiar with the meeting.
In their meeting with Pacheco and other young activists, Munoz and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett offered warnings that going along with Rubio’s plan put at risk other efforts to pass the full Dream Act with a path to citizenship. They told the activists that Rubio had not demonstrated he could win support from fellow Republicans and that the president would use his clout to push an immigration plan next year. “They said, ‘Be careful we’re not lowering the bar. Citizenship is important,’ ” Pacheco recalled.
But Pacheco, who remains undocumented even after graduating from college, said Obama should see the situation as more urgent. “We’re at a point of desperation, at a point where we cannot continue to live the way we’ve been living,” she said.