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Mitt Romney turns toward the general election knowing he's close to President Obama in the polls. But right now his prospects among Hispanic voters look even worse than usual for Republicans.
INSKEEP: Only a few years ago, the last Republican president, George W. Bush, was actively working to win the Hispanic vote. This year, Republicans have gone through a primary season that featured strong rhetoric on immigration.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Don Gonyea reports on a debate among Republicans over what to do now.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: At a Republican candidate forum in Wisconsin, before the state's primary, one of the speakers was someone not on the ballot. But he had strong words for the GOP regarding its low standing with Hispanic voters. Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is the first Hispanic to hold the nation's highest law enforcement post. His message that day to Republican candidates was direct.
ALBERTO GONZALEZ: The way the party deals with issues like immigration - let me take that back. The way the party talks about issues like immigration is going to impact the future course of this party and the future course of this nation.
GONYEA: Gonzales didn't mention any candidate by name. But during the Republican primaries, none staked out a tougher position on immigration than former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. This is from a debate in Tampa last year.
MITT ROMNEY: Of course we build a fence. And of course we do not give instate tuition credits to people who've come here illegally.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
ROMNEY: That only attracts people to continue to come here and take advantage of America's great beneficence.
GONYEA: And this, from the same debate.
ROMNEY: One of the things I did in my state was to say, look, I'm going to get my state police authorized to be able to enforce immigration laws and make sure those people who we arrest are put in jail, to find out if they're here illegally. We're going to get them out of here.
GONYEA: It may be a position designed to win votes in Republican primaries, but it hurts the party in the long run, according to Attorney General Gonzales in an interview with NPR.
GONZALEZ: Anything you say or any campaign position you take, there are going to be consequences. And I think given the current trajectory, if there's not a change in course, the consequences are not going to be good ones for a Romney presidency, at least with respect to Hispanic votes.
GONYEA: In recent days there have been hints of a change of course. The Republican National Committee announced an expanded outreach program targeting Hispanic voters in states with large Hispanic populations.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina - we bring you the Republican message of economic security to (foreign language spoken) - our communities.
GONYEA: The RNC posted this Web announcement about the effort. And prominent Hispanic Republicans in Congress are speaking out, like Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: I am concerned, because there is this growing demographic in America who I think - at a minimum - we should be competitive in, and we're not.
GONYEA: Rubio was at a forum in Washington sponsored by the National Journal magazine. He is a Cuban-American widely viewed as a potential running mate for Romney.
RUBIO: I think what has to happen is a permanent commitment that we are going to take the time and energy in the long-term to make this argument about why a limited government and free enterprise is the right answer to their desires, to their aspirations.
GONYEA: But Rubio is also trying to soften his party's image on the issue of immigration by proposing an alternative to the White House-backed Dream Act. But some Romney backers are urging Romney not to soften his stand on immigration.
KRIS KOBACH: Governor Romney needs to stay the course.
GONYEA: Kris Kobach is the secretary of state in Kansas and an aggressive proponent of strong immigration laws with strict enforcement. He helped write the controversial Arizona law, SB 1070, which goes before the U.S. Supreme court this week.
The way Romney's campaign has described Kobach gives some clues as to how they're wrestling with immigration today. Early on he was an advisor, then more recently just a supporter, according to the campaign. Now they say he's an informal advisor.
Again, Kris Kobach.
KOBACH: A survey just came out from Quinnipiac showing that among independent voters, 48 percent favor Governor Romney's position on immigration versus only 33 percent who favor President Obama's position on immigration. Clearly he's winning with independent voters by taking a law enforcement-oriented approach. And remember, independent voters will decide who becomes president in the fall.
GONYEA: Whether Romney keeps his previous hard line on immigration now that his nomination seems assured remains to be seen. Today he campaigns with Senator Rubio in Pennsylvania. And on Friday he did more listening than talking when he met with Hispanic business owners in Arizona.
One thing does seem clear. Both he and the party want to shift the focus away from immigration, hoping to win votes with the argument that President Obama's handling of the economy has been bad for the country and for Hispanics.
Don Gonyea. NPR News.
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