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Romney Avoids Immigration Policy During Arizona Campaign Foray

Mitt Romney avoided explaining his immigration policies while campaigning in Arizona, as he sought to soothe wounds from the Republican presidential primary season and attack President Barack Obama’s record.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee declined to make any substantive comments about immigration as he met with Hispanic business leaders during a roundtable discussion at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe.

“Thank you, appreciate it,” Romney said, after one participant suggested he should support something akin to the so-called DREAM Act. That bill, which Romney opposes and Republicans have blocked in Congress, would let undocumented residents brought to the U.S. as babies or young children obtain citizenship if they attend college or join the military.

Throughout the primary campaign, Romney took a tough stance on illegal immigration, aligning himself with attitudes of the Republican Party’s base. That could hurt him in the November general election if Hispanics are alienated by his positions and rhetoric.

In an interview that aired last night on the Fox News Channel, Romney said he would support some form of legislation that would provide a “realistic way” for more legal immigration.

Skill and Experience

“I’d like people who have skill and experience and who speak English, education; I’d like to make it easier for them to come to the country,” he said.

During several debates in the primary campaign, Romney stressed his opposition to any plan that would grant citizenship to illegal immigrants without forcing them to leave the country and return under legal status.

Hispanic registered voters backed Obama over Romney, 67 percent to 27 percent, in a poll released April 17 by the Pew Research Center. Four years ago, Obama won a similar proportion in his victory over Republican Arizona Senator John McCain.

Arizona’s population is almost 30 percent Hispanic, according to U.S. Census data, and it has been at the center of the nation’s debate over illegal immigration. The state unemployment rate is 8.6 percent, above the national average of 8.2 percent.

At a rally outside the historical society museum, Romney kept his focus on the economy and Obama.

Getting a Little Better

“He’s going to try to take credit for things if they get better,” Romney told supporters. “I sure hope they get better soon. They seem to be getting a little better. I sure hope so. But he is not the reason things are getting better. They are getting in spite of him instead of because of him.”

Earlier yesterday, Romney told members of the Republican National Committee and state chairmen that Obama is “very clearly out of ideas and out of excuses.”

Although the former Massachusetts governor isn’t yet the official Republican presidential nominee, his appearance at the gathering in Scottsdale, Arizona, signaled the party is rallying around him.

At the start of his speech, he named his primary opponents -- including Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose campaigns ended early -- and said each “contributed to the process” and each would “play a vital role” in this year’s campaign.

Romney was introduced by McCain, the party’s 2008 standard- bearer who earlier this year endorsed Romney.

Coming Together

“I am so gratified to see our party coming together in a solid team that is going to elect him president of the United States,” McCain said of Romney.

The meeting where the two men spoke is designed to map out strategy for November’s election against Obama.

Lis Smith, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, responded to Romney’s speech by saying he suffered from an “aversion to the truth.”

“It’s no surprise why Mitt Romney didn’t talk about his record or what he’d do as president,” Smith said in a statement. “He doesn’t want to remind people that his record in Massachusetts was one of more debt, higher taxes, and bigger government.”

Romney emerged as the presumptive nominee after his main challenger, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, announced on April 10 he was ending his candidacy.

Social Conservatives

Some social conservatives who are most motivated by issues like opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage have yet to fully line up behind Romney.

Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa, said Romney hasn’t taken steps to “endear himself to the conservative base” since it became all but certain he will be nominated at the party’s Aug. 27-30 national convention in Tampa, Florida.

Romney and his aides need to have more conversations with social conservatives, Scheffler said, if they are going to be motivated to work for him.

Saul Anuzis, a national committee member and former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, had a different take.

“Everyone is excited and ready to move on to the fall election,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure everyone is united.”

Evangelical Christians will “rally behind” Romney, Anuzis said, once they contrast their choice with Obama. The Romney camp announced he will deliver the commencement address May 12 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, a college founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell.

Aggressive Bid

Obama is making a more aggressive bid for Arizona than four years ago, when he was running against McCain, who carried the state by 9 percentage points.

Since 1952, Arizona has backed one Democratic presidential candidate: Bill Clinton in 1996. The state is also home to a Republican governor and two Republican senators.

Also helpful to Romney in Arizona is his Mormon faith. Like many states in the western U.S., Arizona includes a sizable Mormon population.

Still, Arizona’s growing Hispanic population and Romney’s calls for tougher immigration laws give Obama’s campaign reason for optimism.

“Arizona may have well been in our sights in 2008 had John McCain not been the nominee,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “But with changing demographics and a Republican front-runner who called for self-deportation and said he’d veto the DREAM Act, it presents an especially rich opportunity.”

In his Fox News interview, Romney was asked about Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s assertion that his family had links to a “polygamy commune” in Mexico.

Romney’s father, who headed now defunct American Motors Corp. before becoming governor of Michigan, was born in a Mormon settlement in Mexico.

Romney said his grandfather “was not a polygamist,” and that his father “had a very tough upbringing.”

Schweitzer, a Democrat, told the Daily Beast website earlier this week that Romney wouldn’t want to highlight his family’s connection to Mexico “because that history involves a polygamy colony.”

To contact the reporter on this story: John McCormick in Tempe, Arizona, at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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