ORLANDO, Fla. - Mitt Romney, who courted conservative Republican primary voters with hard-line opposition to illegal immigration, took a first step Thursday toward trying to soften his image among skeptical Hispanic voters, pledging to speak in a "civil and resolute manner" and saying he would loosen some restrictions on the flow of legal foreign workers.
But the presumed GOP presidential nominee showed in his appearance before a major Hispanic group that he is not prepared to back down from many of the positions that have put him at odds with some immigrants, advocacy groups and members of his party.
He did not say what should happen to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, nor did he mention the Dream Act, the stalled legislation he previously vowed to veto that would legalize many young people brought to the country as children.
Instead, Romney told about 1,000 attendees at the the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials meeting at Disney World that President Barack Obama had not fulfilled his promises for Hispanics. Obama is scheduled to address the group on Friday - the first time he has attended the NALEO annual gathering, as Romney pointed out, since 2008.
"He may admit that he has not kept every promise, and he’ll probably say that even though you aren’t better off than you were four years ago, things could be worse," Romney said. "He will imply that you don’t really have an alternative. I believe he’s taking your vote for granted. I come here today with a very simple message: You do have an alternative."
The back-to-back appearances here underscore the growing importance of Hispanic voters, particularly in battleground states such as Colorado, Nevada and Virginia that are vital to the president’s re-election strategy. Polls show that among Latino adults, Obama holds a lead of 68 percent to Romney’s 30 percent, according to Washington Post-ABC News surveys - but Republican strategists think that increasing Romney’s share to 40 percent could be enough to win the election.
In 2008, Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 31 percent for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Immigration has emerged in recent weeks as a flash point in the presidential race, with Obama and Romney staking out sharply different positions.
Obama heightened the pressure on Romney last week with his administration’s move to halt the deportations of hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants who might have been eligible for help under the Dream Act. The issue will return to the fore next week, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Obama administration’s challenge to Arizona’s tough anti-illegal-immigration law, which Romney and many Republicans supported.
In his speech Thursday, Romney ridiculed the president’s action on deportations, which grants "deferred action" to certain law-abiding immigrants younger than 30 who came to the United States as children. He said Obama, despite having Democratic majorities in Congress for two years, "failed to act until facing a tough re-election and trying to secure your vote."
But Romney stopped short of promising he would reverse the policy, saying he would "put in place my own long- term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure."
Romney reiterated his pledge to help illegal immigrants who are serving in the military, saying he would push for a "path to legal status for anyone who is willing to stand up and defend this great nation through military service." He did not mention that illegal immigrants are barred from service, but his campaign said later that Romney would support allowing certain immigrants brought as children to join.
Democrats and liberal immigration advocates were quick to denounce Romney’s speech as a sign that he plans to hew closely to the wishes of the conservative Republican base when it comes to immigration.
"Any chance Mitt Romney had of substantially improving his standing with Latino voters in 2012 ended" with Thursday’s speech, said Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN and an adviser to Democrats on the Hispanic vote. "He had a chance to start fresh, but choose to double down on a set of policies simply unacceptable to the vast majority of Latinos."
Romney, who has staked out a hard-line stance against illegal immigration since his first presidential campaign in 2008, faces a steep political challenge. Democrats are armed with multiple video clips from Republican primary debates in which he hit his opponents for supporting measures such as charging in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.
Moreover, Romney’s views on immigration have highlighted a potential divide between him and other Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who have supported finding a way to legalize students and college graduates in addition to those who serve in the military.
Other Republicans have criticized the tone of his past statements, saying he risks portraying the GOP as anti-Hispanic.
Romney appeared to directly answer those concerns on Thursday, while tweaking Obama. "I’m going to address the issue of illegal immigration in a civil and resolute manner," he said. "We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it."
In the lead-up to his address, Romney sought to align himself more closely on the issue with Rubio, a Cuban American who many conservatives hope will be Romney’s running mate. His criticism of Obama’s deportation policy mirrored Rubio’s. And Rubio, asked by reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington hours before Romney’s address to analyze Romney’s approach on immigration, described him as a "very mature and serious political leader" seeking a balanced approach to a complicated issue.
One prominent GOP supporter of the Dream Act, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has called on the party to soften its tone on immigration, praised Romney’s speech.
"I was very pleased with it." he said. "I heard a consistent message of border control, but I think he expanded it out to talk about reforming the immigration system itself."
Attendees who listened to the speech gave the presumptive GOP nominee a mixed reaction as he spoke, highlighting the diverse views among Hispanic voters. Some booed Romney, and others applauded, when he pledged to repeal Obama’s health-care law; and Romney’s remarks on immigration reform in particular drew a range of reactions.
Some, like Trini Lopez, the mayor of Socorro, Texas, expressed cautious optimism.
Lopez said that among the "enticing offers" to the Latino community Romney laid out on Thursday was his proposal to reform the work visa system. Even so, Lopez said, before he decides whom to vote for, he needs to hear personally from Obama on Friday.
Others, such as Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, voiced skepticism.
"If that message was heard a few months ago, it would mean more today," he said of Romney’s advocacy for fixing immigration laws. "But if that message was heard a few months ago, he probably would not be the Republican nominee."