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Mitt Romney meets with Latino business leaders

The Republican presidential contender is pressed to give his support to the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for college students, and which he has said he would veto.

April 20, 2012|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, shakes hands with Manny Molina after a roundtable discussion with Hispanic business owners in Tempe, Ariz.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, shakes hands with Manny Molina… (Jae C. Hong, Associated…)

TEMPE, Ariz. — A former president of the University of Arizona pleaded with Mitt Romney on Friday to support some version of the Dream Act to give "a glimmer of hope" to college students who are not in the United States legally.

"They're bright. They can help carry this country forward," Manuel Pacheco told the Republican presidential candidate during a round-table discussion with Latino business leaders in Tempe. "I think it would be a shame to lose that particular talent that they bring."

Romney listened politely, nodding, as Pacheco pushed him to effectively change his strong opposition to the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented college students. Romney, who took a hard line on immigration issues in the Republican primary, has said he would veto the Dream Act if it were passed while he was president.

When Pacheco finished speaking, Romney smiled and said: "Thank you! Appreciate that! Thank you." He then turned to the next participant and did not discuss the matter further.

Eight people took part in the discussion at the Arizona Historical Society Museum. Most of the talk hinged on ways to improve the business climate, and Romney participated more enthusiastically in those discussions, asking detailed questions of most speakers.

At times he appeared to revert to his role as chief executive of Bain Capital, the Boston-based financial services firm, as when he demanded of a business owner complaining about his taxes, "Are you an LLC or a Sub-S?" (He was referring to different legal categories of companies.)

Pacheco was among two participants who brought up the Dream Act. He said later that he had been encouraged by reports in recent days that Sen. Marco Rubio had called for consideration of a modified version of the legislation.

Rubio, a Florida Republican of Cuban heritage, is thought to be on Romney's short list of vice presidential candidates. He was quoted this week as saying that he hoped Romney would consider a revised Dream Act that might not grant citizenship but would allow the students to remain in this country legally.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Pacheco stressed that he supported Romney's candidacy, but believed that Rubio had provided "a possible entry point" for the GOP to consider legislation that would have a similar goal to that of the Dream Act.

Romney's meeting with the Latino business leaders highlighted the importance of the Latino vote in the fall election. Polls have shown Romney badly trailing President Obama among Latino voters, with the president leading by 64% to 24% in one recent survey. Republicans are acutely aware that, as the Latino population of the country grows, numbers like those could be crippling.

After the round table, Romney held a rally outside the museum, rolling up his sleeves to address several hundred supporters in 95-degree heat.

Earlier in the day, Arizona GOP Chairman Thomas Morrissey acknowledged that the party needed to do a better job of reaching out to Latinos, and he expressed confidence that Romney would do so. "He's very strong on that, and I think you'll be seeing more and more of that as we go along," Morrissey said.

He spoke during a break in meetings of the Republican National Committee in Scottsdale, where Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain addressed delegates.

Although most Latinos disagree with the Republican Party on immigration policy, Morrissey said its significance as an issue has been overblown. Like most Americans, he said, Latinos are primarily concerned with the economy and jobs, and will respond to Republican appeals on those issues.

"Immigration is actually very low on the list of priorities" for Latino voters, he said.

A recent survey of Latino voters by the Pew Hispanic Center lends credence to Morrissey's point. Asked which issues are "extremely important" in the 2012 election, roughly half named jobs and education. Immigration came in last among six issues, with just one-third saying it was extremely important.

The Obama campaign reacted to Romney's appearance before the Latino business group with a statement from spokeswoman Gabriela Domenzain: Latinos "stand to lose the most from Romney's insistence on the same failed economic policies that created the economic crisis," she said, "including his plans to give massive tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires at the expense of economic growth and the middle class."

McCain's brief speech to the Republican National Committee included some especially harsh language about Obama, his opponent in the 2008 presidential campaign. He called Obama's reelection campaign "desperate," adding, "Obviously, they'll do anything."

And he excoriated the process by which the administration pushed through its healthcare plan: "That wasn't the kind of government that Obama promised the American people. That was an exercise in sleaze."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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