The leaders of one Republican-leaning group, the Hispanic Leadership Fund, are so upset with Romney that if he wins the nomination, they might withhold an endorsement and curtail plans for an extensive voter-contact campaign in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida to bolster the GOP presidential ticket.
Several Republican groups have spent the past three years trying to repair damage from the 2008 campaign, when GOP nominee John McCain won just 31 percent of the Hispanic vote after a bruising primary season in which he was forced to back off his support for a plan that would have put many illegal immigrants on a path to legalization.
Romney, one of McCain’s 2008 rivals, attacked McCain as being soft on the issue. Now party strategists are fretting as Romney — once again — stakes out conservative turf by accusing his opponents of supporting policies that go easy on illegal immigration.
“Romney’s tin ear on this topic, on immigration, will hurt him should he be the nominee, is hurting the Republican Party and is hurting every conservative who cares about passing conservative legislation in the future,” said Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund.
Another Hispanic strategist on the right, Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, added: “It pains me to say this, but if we have a negative narrative on immigration, it’s because of Mitt Romney.”
And Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a leading voice in the party for expanding outreach to Hispanic voters, said Romney’s attacks threaten to overshadow more positive comments the candidate has made — such as in an August debate when he called the United States a “nation of immigrants” and said, “We love legal immigration.”
“It’s good that he said that in one of the debates,” Gillespie said. “It’d be better if he said it in more than one of the debates.”
A spokeswoman for Romney, Andrea Saul, did not respond directly to the question of whether the former Massachusetts governor’s approach might hurt the party among Hispanic voters.
In an e-mail, she pointed to Romney’s remark in Thursday night’s Iowa debate that “those who are here illegally have to get in line with everybody else.” Saul called Romney “a great proponent of legal immigration.”
Still, Romney’s most memorable lines, GOP critics say, have come during attacks on rivals, most notably Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
In a September debate, as Perry was rising in the polls, Romney blasted the Texan’s support for granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants as a “magnet” drawing people over the border. “If you’re an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount,” Romney charged.