Mitt Romney Immigration Policy Gets Spotlight As CNN Poll Shows Voters Favor Reform

El candidato presidencial republicano Mitt Romney habla en un acto proselitista en Denver el 1 de octubre del 2012 (AP Foto/D
El candidato presidencial republicano Mitt Romney habla en un acto proselitista en Denver el 1 de octubre del 2012 (AP Foto/David Goldman)

On Monday, Romney told the Denver Post that if elected, he would not rescind the two-year deportation relief applications and work permits granted under a new Obama administration program. And he would marshal immigration reform though Congress during his first year in office.

The statement amounts to Romney's most direct commitment on immigration to date. Young undocumented activists in Colorado said they were heartened by the news. Conservative advocates of strict, even punitive immigration enforcement went silent. The Obama campaign released a series of statements describing Romney’s comments as a last-ditch, nakedly strategic and potentially insincere attempt to appeal to Latino voters without specifying what type of immigration reform he would advance. And by Tuesday night, the Romney campaign team was working hard to spilt the difference. If elected, the campaign told the Boston Globe, Romney would end the Obama program but honor the reprieves and work permits Romney described earlier as "already purchased." And he would push hard for unspecified legislative reform.

Thirty-four days before the election, both candidates are trying to find the political beat and combination of moves that will make as many voters as possible want to dance. A new CNN poll released late Tuesday points to just how hard -- and essential -- that work may be for Romney. The Romney campaign did not respond to requests for comment late Tuesday, but the CNN poll offers one of the most plausible, publicly available explanations for Romney's decision to draw attention this week to his immigration policy.

The poll, which surveyed 462 registered Latino voters around the country between Sept. 25 and Oct. 1, found that, unprompted, 44 percent of Latinos ranked the economy as the most important issue facing the country. Immigration registered as the most important issue for 14 percent of Latino voters, putting the issue at a distant but meaningful second place. And 23 percent of Latinos ranked immigration reform as the most important issue facing the country when given a specific set of choices.

The figures are significant because they represent one of the first polls since the general election began in which immigration has climbed in political significance to Latino voters, above education and health care. With just 34 days left before the general election, the poll may undermine a long-running Republican claim that Latino voters are not particularly concerned about immigration and that the party can claim Hispanic votes by sticking to its standard message of limited government and opposition to taxes, regulation, abortion and gay marriage.

The CNN numbers point to what other pollsters, analysts and even some GOP political operatives have said is a major problem for the Romney campaign: an untenable and unclear position on immigration for a candidate who wants and needs to win Latino votes.

Several prominent Republicans and GOP political operatives, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 2008 Republican presidential nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain and his adviser Anna Navarro, George W. Bush's idea man Karl Rove and to some extent one-time Romney running mate contestant Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have said that the party must soften its language and take a pragmatic stance on immigration reform.

"People always say that George Bush got the Latino votes that he did because he spoke pidgin Spanish," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for immigration reform. "But that wasn't it. It was because he showed Latino voters some respect, and when it counted, he took some political risk, put some skin in the game, stood up to the far right wing of his party and said, 'No, we are going to go for immigration reform.'"

According to Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist and co-founder of Latino Decisions, a polling firm that has tracked Latino political priorities, broad swaths of Latino voters from across the political spectrum support an immigration overhaul that includes some form of legalization for the undocumented.

The CNN poll found evidence of something else: real and perceptible shifts in the entire electorate's views on a number of issues including immigration reform.

The broader CNN survey from which the Latino voter information was culled showed 64 percent of registered voters think the president's deportation reprieve program is "about right," while 15 percent said it does not go far enough. Only 18 percent said it goes too far. And 56 percent of American voters said the focus of immigration reform should be to develop a plan to legalize the undocumented. Only 42 percent said the same in a CNN poll conducted a year ago.

During the long Republican primary season, Romney pointed to a combination of more stringent border enforcement and "self-deportation" as a solution for the nation's immigration crisis. He described a Texas law granting undocumented immigrant students access to in-state college tuition rates as nonsensical, called the Dream Act a "give-away" and Arizona's SB1070 law, which authorized immigration enforcement at the state level, a model for the nation. He also named Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an architect of the Arizona law, an adviser before downgrading his role later.

After the primary, a senior Romney advisor said that Romney would shake an "Etch-a-sketch" and recast some of his more right-leaning positions for a general election audience.

"They wanted to make immigration a non-issue and the economy the issue for Hispanic voters, for every voter," said Sharry of America's Voice, "but because they took such extreme positions during the primary ... What these CNN numbers say is Romney doesn't need an Etch-a-sketch. He needs a time machine."