Among Latinos, Mitt Romney Trumped By Barack Obama's Immigration Message

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama faced off -- a day apart -- this week in an attempt to woo Latino voters and address their policies on immigration.

Judging by the candidates' receptions from crowds at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference, Obama won. He appeared more relaxed, got more applause, and was more insistent on the need for immigration reform.

It wasn't that Romney was entering a lion's den. Although a majority of Latinos are Democrats, most members of NALEO serve in non-partisan positions, no matter their personal opinions. His reception was warm, but not overwhelming, and paled in retrospect to the previous greetings for fellow Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

Obama brought the crowd to its feet several times Friday, as he talked about immigration reform, health care and education. He enacted a policy last week that many Latinos had long called for, halting deportations of some young, undocumented immigrants.

He was greeted like a "conquering hero," tweeted Ana Navarro, who served as national Hispanic co-chair for GOP presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.

"Obama giving my Democrat colleagues a lot more to work with, than Romney gave me yesterday at ‪#NALEO‬," she tweeted. "It ain't going to be easy, folks."

One problem, some attendees said, was that Romney glossed over the issues of undocumented young people, saying only that he favored major reform.

Matt Barreto, a pollster with the non-partisan firm Latino Decisions, said Romney's speech was good but had telling omissions.

"He sort of cherry-picked the immigration ideas that are very popular," Barreto said Thursday. "It doesn't sidestep the larger issue, and the larger issue is, what is your policy [on undocumented immigrants] going to be, and what about this insane idea of self-deport?"

Miami-Dade County school board member Raquel Regalado, a Republican, said she wanted more details from both candidates on a number of immigration issues. She is still undecided on who to vote for, but said she was glad to get "a little bit more information than the usual soundbite."

"I did like the fact that [Romney] came out and said something," said another Republican, Tony Rosado, the mayor of Mascotte, Fla. He added that Democrats have only discussed the Dream Act, while Romney laid out a more expansive plan.

Even Democrats gave Romney credit for taking on the issue of immigration in a more pro-reform way. Attendees from both parties said Romney is making the right call by backing away, at least rhetorically, from the hardline talk he employed on immigration earlier in the campaign.

Janet Murguia, president of the non-partisan National Council of La Raza, said, "it felt like he was starting to pivot to talk with some more specificity" on immigration reform. "The question is whether he will be successful in the pivot here."

That remains the big "if" here. His campaign has furiously released statements -- six in barely more than 24 hours -- from Latino supporters, such as Reps. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Quico Canseco (R-Texas), all discussing the economy.

Romney likely would have rather talked about the economy, too. It has been the focus of his campaign messages to Hispanic voters, who usually rank it at the top of their priorities and have suffered higher-than-average unemployment.

Bush skipped over immigration entirely in his speech Thursday, opting to discuss education instead, and when Rubio spoke Friday, he said he felt pushed to talk about immigration because of the president's recent directive halting deportations of some undocumented young people.

"I've abandoned my hopes of only talking about the economy and jobs, as important as that may be, for one moment and one day in the hopes of speaking to you about the issue of immigration," Rubio said.

Chicago alderman Rey Colon, a Democrat, said Romney's speech took a better tone than his previous remarks on immigration, but he was concerned by some of the "trigger words," such as a reference to high-tech border fencing, that might point to increasing enforcement rather than broader reform.

Still, he said he was glad he was able to hear from Romney. "I always think, maybe I drank the Kool-Aid and I need to hear a different perspective on things," Colon said.

Democrat Steve Castaneda, the deputy mayor of Chula Vista, Calif., said that some of Romney's ideas on immigration are good ones and likely will appeal to Latino voters. "The problem is getting Latino voters, or at least the majority of Latino voters, to believe him," he said.

Below, a slideshow of politicians' reactions to Obama's immigration announcement:

Politicians React To New Immigration Policy