Heading into the Republican primaries, Romney did not have a Latino problem. His public pronouncements on immigration issues were reminiscent of those of George W. Bush who, in his two presidential campaigns, won a significantly bigger share of Latino votes than past GOP candidates. The nearly 40% support Bush received in 2004 assured him victories in the crucial swing states of Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. Winning those states is just as crucial in 2012.
But through the long months of the Republican primary contests, Romney went out of his way to take a hard line on illegal immigration. It may have seemed like a smart idea at the time. His party's hard-right base was suspicious of his moderate record as governor of Massachusetts and the ease with which he tacked with the wind on so many issues. Trashing the Dream Act and calling for illegal immigrants to "self-deport" allowed Romney to leap to the right of his more conservative rivals and, perhaps, helped him clinch the nomination.
Now, of course, that tactic does not look quite so clever. At this juncture in the campaign, illegal immigration is a hot issue, thanks to President Obama and the U.S. Supreme Court. Two weeks ago, Obama made news and new friends among Latinos by declaring that young people brought into the country illegally by their parents will not be targeted for deportation as long as they are law-abiding and productive. And this week, the high court struck down all but one section of a controversial Arizona law that aimed to crack down hard on suspected illegal immigrants.
In reaction to both these developments, Romney and his spokesmen have been vague and evasive. They have abandoned the tough rhetoric of the primaries and replaced it with bland generalities. Romney has refused to say if, as president, he would reverse Obama's non-enforcement policy. On the Arizona law that he once declared could be a model for the whole country, he now says only that the Supreme Court ruling is "unfortunate" and that, somehow, it is all Obama's fault.
Romney seems almost to be edging toward another flip-flop, waffling over the very issue on which he was so rigid in the primary debates. This will give hyper-conservatives reason again to mistrust his ideological steadiness. Yet, if he and his campaign tacticians think his toned-down rhetoric will improve his standing with Latinos, they are almost certainly going to be disappointed.
Romney's approval rating with Latinos, the fastest-growing block of the American electorate, is mired in the mid-20s, 40 points behind Obama, and there it is likely to stay. Illegal immigration will soon be overtaken by other issues, most likely healthcare, thanks to the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on "Obamacare." Ultimately, the focus will return to the economy. Romney stands on much more solid ground on both those issues. But though it may be a relief for him to see illegal immigration fade as a focus of campaign buzz, it will also mean that the image of Romney as muddled and untrustworthy on the issue will be locked in place.
That will matter a great deal if the election turns out to be as close as it is expected to be. Just as a healthy slice of the Latino vote helped put Bush over the top in key swing states in 2004; a poor showing among Latino voters could mean those same states will be out of reach for Romney in 2012. And if they are out of reach, so is the White House.
[For the Record, 2:51 p.m. June 27: The cartoon on this post has been updated to correct the spelling of the Spanish word "panaderia."]