Immigration thorn for Mitt

For a Romney presidential campaign hoping to limit damage with Latinos, these past two weeks have been less than kind.

First off was President Obama’s decision to stop deporting the so-called DREAMers — the children of undocumented immigrants who lacked a criminal record and either went to college or joined the military. A top issue in the Latino community, Gallup polling found that more than 80 percent of Hispanics supported the president’s decision. Yet a week later, Mitt Romney has been unwilling or unable to offer any coherent response beyond “I’ll fix the problem when elected!” 

Those problems compounded Monday when the Supreme Court invalidated the bulk of Arizona’s detestable S.B. 1070, the law that (among other things) allowed law enforcement to demand papers from people merely suspected of being undocumented (i.e., being brown). On the Romney campaign plane, a spokesman refused a clear answer on the ruling when asked 22 separate times over seven minutes.

In both cases, Romney is trapped between his xenophobic nativist base and the political realities of winning battleground states with significant Latino populations — from Arizona, Colorado and Nevada to Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. 

Base conservatives, already distrustful of Romney, want a clear signal that Romney would both rescind the DREAM executive order and reaffirm the full-throated support for Arizona’s S.B. 1070 that he displayed during the primaries. But either of those would spell doom to any hopes of chipping away at Obama’s Latino support. 

Confirming a rash of recent polling, a new USA Today/Gallup poll found that Obama leads Romney 66 to 25 percent among Latinos, the weakest showing for any Republican presidential candidate since Bob Dole got 21 percent in 1996. And Latinos were only 5 percent of the electorate that year. They were 9 percent in 2008, and will break double digits this election year.

Romney is doing even more poorly than that in some critical battleground states. According to fresh Latino Decisions polling, Romney has just 18 percent of Latino support in Arizona, 22 percent in Colorado, 37 percent in Florida (where Cuban-Americans boost GOP performance), 20 percent in Nevada and 28 percent in Virginia. 

Surprisingly, Latino Decisions also found that the current debate over immigration appears to be firing up Latino voters. “When asked to compare their interest and enthusiasm levels in the 2008 and 2012 election, more people now tell us they are more enthusiastic about voting in 2012 than 2008, a shift from our previous polling,” wrote the pollster.

The Romney campaign is going through the motions of competing for this demographic, increasing its paid presence in Spanish-language media and making greater use of conservative Latino surrogates like Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lawmakers raise concerns over research grants to colleges with Confucius Institutes Paid family leave could give new parents a much-needed lifeline GOP looks to injure Nelson over Russia comments MORE. However, any gains they might muster would be easily nullified. During the primaries earlier this year, Romney criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s support for a Texas DREAM law as a “magnet for illegal immigration” and pledged to veto a federal version. He bragged about having Kris Kobach, author of S.B. 1070, as an adviser to his campaign. Kobach is an oft-referenced boogeyman in Spanish-language media circles. And Romney promoted a policy of making life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they would “self-deport.”

Now he is trying to “soften” his immigration stance. But given the option during the Republican primaries, Romney sided with the nativists. His bed is made. Trying to ignore recent developments with Obama’s DREAM executive order and the Supreme Court’s decision on S.B. 1070 won’t heal the damage.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (