The Supreme Court rejected large portions of a controversial Arizona immigration law but left intact the ability of police to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand to see their papers, a sort of split decision that should hand President Obama a political cudgel with which to take after former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

A rally against Arizona's immigration law on April 25 outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

In a presidential debate earlier this year, Romney called Arizona a “model” for how to handle immigration and added: “I will drop those lawsuits on day one.” (Romney’s campaign clarified that he was referring to the state’s e-verify system not the illegal immigration law when using the term “model.) And Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer endorsed Romney’s presidential campaign in late February.

By and large, however, Romney has avoided any extended conversations about immigration since he has emerged as the Republican nominee.

In the wake of President Obama’s recent decision to cease enforcement of the deportation of young illegal immigrants, Romney issued a statement that called it a short-term solution to a long term problem but largely stayed away from offering his own long term solution. Ditto a speech he gave late last week to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

And, in the wake of today’s ruling by the Court, Romney issued a generic condemnation of Obama’s failure “to provide any leadership on immigration” but offered no specifics about the case itself. And, Romney’s team made clear that the candidate was planning no more statements or on-camera appearances to discuss the ruling today.

The simple political reality on immigration for Romney goes like this: the Republican base is vehemently opposed to illegal immigration or a path to citizenship in any way shape or form but to adopt that policy would be to essentially write off the growing Hispanic community for years to come.

And so, the best policy for Romney is to say as little as possible and keep the focus on the economy. Today’s ruling means, however, that Romney will almost certainly have to offer an opinion on whether the Court was right to uphold the right of Arizona police officers to stop and check for immigration papers. And that makes it something short of a great day for his campaign.

That said, it’s also important to remember that for all the hubbub over the Court’s ruling on immigration today, it remains a decidedly back-of-the-mind issue for most voters.

In a May Washington Post-ABC News poll, less than one percent of respondents named immigration as the single most important issue for them in the election. (The economy, by contrast, was the most important issue to 52 percent of those surveyed.)

What those numbers suggest is that Romney may take a bit of short-term pain as he tries to thread the needle over the Court’s immigration decision but if he keeps himself broadly focused on the economy then it shouldn’t damage him badly among most voters.

Looking beyond the 2012 election, however, Republicans must be very careful not to allow themselves to be branded the anti-immigration party. That designation could potentially doom them to minority party status nationally in 2016, 2020 and beyond.

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