Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wants to put himself elegantly and presidentially in the spotlight while introducing himself to Latinos — a group crucial to his hopes of winning in November — but faces ongoing challenges.
All through a strenuously fought campaign, in which Republican candidates elbowed their way to the right fringes of their party on everything from economics to immigration, Gov. Romney held his own. In fact, while a number of his primary opponents said things that reduced immigrants and minorities to the lowest rungs of the ladder, a number of things Romney said stood out and still resonate.
But July, for Romney, was the most negative month, whether doing damage control over his campaign’s clarification of the health care plan he created for Massachusetts, the state he once governed, or being editorially pilloried by the conservative Wall Street Journal, Romney and his camp found themselves bumping into walls making corrections and clarifications all month long.
“People are taking them (comments) out of context,” says Jose Fuentes, former attorney general for Puerto Rico and Romney Hispanic surrogate. “What he is saying is spot-on,” Fuentes says. “We’re talking about democracy, allowing people to progress, allowing people to participate in the marketplace.”
On his first foray overseas — a trip designed to burnish his image as presidential — Romney made two rather inartful missteps. In Britain, he was critical of the British over their Olympic Games preparation. In Israel, he suggested it was “culture and providence,” not politics and economics, that held Palestinians down. Palestinians immediately labeled the comment as racist.
“Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said in praising the accomplishments of his Israeli hosts. Cultural differences, he said, are documentable when comparing Israel’s economic growth to that of its Palestinian population.
But it wasn’t the first time Romney has tied culture to economics. Last March, in a speech at the University of Chicago, he drew the same rich-poor parallel on culture, only this time targeting Mexico. “And that (culture) is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States,” he said.
In a recent telephone interview, Fuentes also defended the former governor’s endorsement of SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Romney, in a Phoenix appearance with embattled Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, once called the measure a “model” for the entire country. The Supreme Court recently overturned parts of the Arizona law.
“There is nothing wrong with that,” Fuentes says. “What the governor said is that every state should be allowed how to deal with different issues.” If the federal government fails to address the immigration issue, said the former Puerto Rico politician, “then each state has to try to protect its citizens.” It is a “model for Arizona that works for Arizona.”
But Romney, whose father was born in Mexico and later became governor of Michigan, has found himself in hot water with potential Latino voters before. One issue, among a number of others that has not sat well with this growing voting bloc, is his vow — if elected president — to veto The Dream Act. The bill would allow a path to citizenship to young immigrants brought to this country by their parents.
Campaigning in Iowa last December, Romney was clear. “For those that come here illegally, the idea of giving them in-state tuition credits or other special benefits I find to be the contrary to the idea of a nation of law,” he said. “If I’m the president of the United States I want to end illegal immigration so that we can protect legal immigration.”
Romney was more flexible on undocumented immigrants who join the military. For them, he said, he would be open to establishing “a path” to permanent residency.
Fuentes says Romney’s positions on immigration and The Dream Act have been mischaracterized. Instead, Fuentes blamed much of the controversy on clumsy Democratic congressional leadership.
Romney, Fuentes says, actually favored Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s legislation, which would have created a path to citizenship for “kids and the military.” However, that legislation became moot when in June the president ordered Homeland Security to stop arresting and begin providing work permits for thousands of Dream-eligible students.
“They pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” the president said of these hundreds of thousands of young people as he made his announcement in June.
For those undocumented who are not here for school, Romney once suggested another plan. Last January, he told a Tampa audience that if someone does not have the right immigration documents, “the answer is self-deportation.” The response was neither thrilling nor thought practical for the estimated 12-million, mostly Mexican, undocumented workers now here or among immigration rights workers.
But despite a documented list of perceived slights toward immigrants, Fuentes still believes it is too early to concede the Latino vote to President Obama. “People tend to tune out until a month or two before the election. Frankly there hasn’t been a big effort by the campaign.”
Fuentes says many of Romney’s comments have simply been mischaracterized or misinterpreted but if given the chance he can show he truly is a good and decent man. “We need to explain who he is.”
If the campaign can find the precise way to soften his image and the right bloc of Latinos — including in Colorado — he believes, Romney could win their vote.
The former island attorney general says Latinos have the same interests as every other voter. They also know the president has failed them in many ways, including in the handling of the economy where Latino jobless numbers remain higher than the rest of the population. If Romney is to make the sale to Latinos, says his surrogate, he has to get busy.
“If you’re president, you’re on TV every day. If you’re not on TV every day, you don’t get the exposure,” he says. “We have our work cut out for us.”