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Romney changes his tone, but offers little of substance

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida – Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney didn’t tell his audience at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) annual conference whether or not he’d rescind the Obama Administration’s temporary relief from deportation for certain DREAMers. He promised that if elected “I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the President’s temporary measure,” but didn’t explain what this long-term solution would actually be.

Departing from the hard-line immigration positions he took in the primaries, Romney presented what he characterized as a national immigration strategy, acknowledging that “immigration reform is not just a moral imperative, but an economic necessity as well.” He criticized President Barack Obama for failing to prioritize immigration reform after promising to do so during his 2008 campaign, and for announcing the temporary DREAMer relief as an attempt to secure the Latino vote.

Obviously, he said nothing about Republicans’ role in blocking immigration reform and the DREAM Act, though Romney told the audience that if elected “I will work with Republicans and Democrats to find a long-term solution.”

“I believe (Obama’s) taking your vote for granted. I come here today with a very simple message: You do have an alternative,” he added.

Romney said that Obama failed to act when he could—when he controlled both houses of Congress—and is only taking action now that he’s “facing a tough reelection and trying to secure your vote,” he told the audience of around 1,000 Hispanic officials of both parties.

By contrast, he said, “When I make a promise to you, I will keep it.”

Romney’s tone represented a change from his anti-immigrant positions and rhetoric in the primaries, which would have put him at a disadvantage in trying to wrest the Latino vote from Obama–among them, his promise to veto the DREAM Act in its current form and his support for “self-deportation” as the solution to the immigration issue facing the United States.

He’s now trying to do a high-wire act: trying not to generate discontent among the Republican Party’s conservative base, who supported his immigration stance in the primaries, while trying to win the Hispanic support he’ll need to compete with Obama—especially in swing states like Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado.

Romney’s speech left the question of what his long-term solution for DREAMers is unanswered. Nor did it clarify how he’ll get his own party to support reforms they’ve blocked for the past two years.

But for Ana Carbonell, a Romney campaign surrogate, her candidate showed the leadership Obama has lacked. Obama only acted to help DREAMers, Carbonell said, “when he saw that (Republican senator) Marco Rubio was putting an idea forward and he (Obama) was looking at some very weak numbers among the Hispanic community.”

However, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll gave Obama a 34-percentage-point advantage over Romney, at 61%-27%. Analysts agree that Romney, and Republican presidential candidates in general, need at least 40% of the Latino vote to win the White House.

Another recent poll, from Latino Decisions, found that Obama’s announcement of relief for DREAMers has generated enthusiasm among Hispanic voters in key states where the Latino vote may be determinative for Obama’s chances in November. A Latino Decisions/America’s Voice poll released Friday showed in the key swing states of Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia, Latinos favor Obama over Romney, 63% to 27%. In Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, Obama held leads of 48 or more percentage points.

Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, admitted that Romney’s decision to talk about a permanent solution without providing details could be risky, and said that the campaign should give a clearer explanation. But “it’s a very calculated risk, and it’s more honest than simply saying that if I’m elected president, we’ll pass immigration reform,” Aguilar added, taking a swipe at Obama.

Romney said that “immigration reform is not just a moral imperative, but an economic necessity as well.” But he didn’t specify what he’d do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. He did say that undocumented youth who want to serve in the Armed Forces should have the opportunity to become legal residents and, eventually, citizens, and he addressed the issue of family reunification, promising to raise current caps on annual visas for relatives of legal immigrants.

“What does ‘a long-term solution’ mean?” asked Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “He (Romney) talks about legal immigration, but we’re all in favor of legal immigration. The question is what he’s going to do, and how he’s going to convince his party to take action. Talk is cheap. What we want to know is what he’s committed to doing, and I don’t think we heard any of that from him,” Medina continued.

Romney’s speech came one week after Obama announced protection from deportation for between 800,000 and 1.4 million undocumented young people, allowing them to apply for deferred action and work permits which would be renewable after two years. The policy is intended as a temporary measure until Congress passes the DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform, which would give them a path to full legal status.

Seven days later, his Republican opponent’s campaign was still avoiding an answer on whether Romney would rescind the temporary relief if elected or not—an especially important question given that he promised to veto the DREAM Act in its current form during the primaries.

Matt Barreto, a pollster for Latino Decisions, said that there are some issues that unite and mobilize Latino voters despite the diversity of their interests. He noted that support for the DREAM Act is overwhelming among all Latino voters, and that more than 80% of them believe that laws like SB 1070 in Arizona will result in racial profiling. Not only has Romney promised to veto the DREAM Act, but he called Arizona’s law a “model” for the country in a primary debate.

He’s changed his tone, but he hasn’t done much to address the substance.