Mitt Romney pulled off a strong debate performance Wednesday night, but one comment may haunt him all the way to November. When asked about immigration, the former governor said, “You know, I think you see a model here in Arizona.”
In the hours since the debate, many Hispanic media outlets interpreted his words to mean a full-fledged endorsement of Arizona’s controversial immigration law SB1070. Democrats pounced on the former governor’s words to label him “the GOP’s most extreme candidate.” They created a video centered around the line, and said Romney had embraced “fully and wholeheartedly the most controversial, divisive and extreme anti-immigrant law in the U.S.”
But Romney didn’t exactly embrace SB1070. The line is ambiguous, but it appears to be a wink at the conservative base before pivoting away from the toxic law. Instead of SB1070, which gives police great leeway in detaining people on suspicion of having entered the country illegally and makes not carrying immigration papers a crime, Romney invoked a 2007 Arizona law requiring that employers use the E-Verify system to make sure they are hiring workers who are in the country legally. Here’s the exchange:
MODERATOR: You’ve talked to the governor about self-deportation, if businesses do their job, asking for the right documents, the people will leave. What about arresting? Should they be aggressive, seek them out, find them and arrest them as the Sheriff Arpaio advocates?
ROMNEY: You know, I think you see a model in Arizona. They passed a law here that says — that says that people who come here and try and find work, that the employer is required to look them up on E- Verify. This E-Verify system allows employers in Arizona to know who’s here legally and who’s not here legally.
Romney’s decision to talk about E-Verify looks like a step away from the more extreme positions he’s taken in the past. Arguably the furthest right on immigration among the GOP candidates, Romney has called the Dream Act a “handout” and welcomed Kris Kobach, the architect of the Arizona law, as an adviser to his campaign. By comparison, he seemed tame Wednesday night. Though Romney said he would drop the federal lawsuit the Obama administration currently has against SB1070, he never mentioned the law by name or used far-right buzz words like “self-deportation,” sticking to E-Verify, which is, at least politically, far less toxic.
“He pandered,” said Luis Heredia, Executive Director of the Arizona Democratic Party in describing Romney’s comments. “He said words like ‘using Arizona as a model.’ This was immediately after a reference to Joe Arpaio. I think Romney might have framed it at the debate as one thing, but his endorsement, his previous comments, how he wants to approach this issue in the primary, is to be extreme.”
Whatever Romney was trying to say — or not say — Wednesday night, his broader comment that Arizona is a ‘model’ opened the door to Democrats’ attacks. The Latino vote may not be a problem for Romney in the primary, but if he makes it to the general election, he will be in a position, particularly in states like Arizona, where he may have to moderate his stance on immigration. And when he does that, Democrats will have this video waiting just for the occasion.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.