With an Iowa win in hand and a double-digit lead in New Hampshire, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is on his way to secure the GOP presidential nomination. Sure, he's still got rivals, but the well-funded, disciplined, and organized Romney has the clearest path to the general election.
The question facing Democratic and Republican strategists alike is how gracefully Romney can perform the age-old pirouette from party primary, where one must pander to the base, to the general election, where one must pander to the center.
Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz took aim at Romney even before Hawkeye state voters caucused on Tuesday night, seeking to highlight the Republican's vulnerabilities to reporters at an Iowa press conference.
"He is leaving Iowa with significant primary baggage that will weigh him down in the general election," she said, according to her prepared statement. She knocked Romney for saying he would not have bailed out the auto industry with federal money and that he would also keep the federal government out of the foreclosure process and instead allow it to "hit bottom."
"Mitt Romney also repackaged the same policies that led to the economic crisis and called it an economic plan," she said. "That includes cutting taxes for the wealthy and big corporations and making the middle class foot the bill, and letting Wall Street write their own rules and do whatever it can to make money--regardless of the impact on the middle class."
And while there's no doubt that "the economy" is on the top of voters minds, Romney's commitment to the free market over government intervention may not offend the disaffected independent voters who supported Obama in 2008 but are now looking for a change.
But experts do point to one issue where a position Romney took in the GOP primary may hurt him in the general election, and that's immigration. The former governor took one of the most conservative positions of any of the Republican candidates when he said all immigrants currently in the United States illegally--estimated to total more than 10 million--should have to return to their home countries before applying for U.S. citizenship. He called a proposal offered by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to allow immigrants with deep ties to their U.S. communities to stay, while deporting "undesirables," tantamount to amnesty.
In a November GOP debate, Romney said, "Amnesty is a magnet. People respond to incentives, and if you could become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you'll do so."
As with many issues, Romney's stance on immigration during this election seems to differ from positions he's taken in the past. In 2006, while governor, Romney had said, "I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country." But his campaign maintains the position is consistent--that Romney believes illegal immigrants should return home before starting down the path to U.S. citizenship.
So why might this haunt Romney in the general election?
"A Republican probably can't win without about 40 percent, minimum, of the Hispanic and Latino vote," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and a well-respected election prognosticator. Sabato adds that the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, tallied only about 31 percent support from this voting bloc in his loss to Obama.
The Latino vote is also not inconsequential because of the growing Hispanic population in a number of swing states, including Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.
William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former policy adviser to President Clinton, also identifies Romney's hard immigration stance as a potential problem for his campaign in the general election.
"I understand why Romney did it, for primary purposes, but that's the one big thing that he's done that could come back to bite him," he says.
"He could have gotten away with a stance closer to Gingrich's. I don't think people who would have opposed him on immigration grounds were going to support him anyway, to be frank."
Obama's popularity with Latinos has waned since 2008 because of his failure to live up to expectations related to immigration reform, Galston says, but Romney's "very blunt and unyielding statements" will prevent him from capitalizing on the incumbent's weakness.
Romney's position has not gone unnoticed by Democrats. On Wednesday, two top House Democrats held a conference call with reporters to denounce both his pledge to veto the DREAM Act as president and his implication that the measure amounts to a "handout." The proposed legislation would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants who arrived in the country as minors, had lived here for at least five years, and had either served in the military for two years or completed four years of college.
Texas Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and California Rep. Xavier Becerra, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Romney's position was harmful to the Hispanic community and would alienate Latinos from supporting him.
"My best guess is that as the Republican nominee, [Romney] would not do a heck of a lot better with that community than McCain did in 2008," says Galston.
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