Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney—whose attacks on rival Rick Perry for backing college tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants have hit a nerve with conservatives—has tripped over the immigration issue himself.
While consistently decrying "amnesty,'' Romney made statements before his 2008 campaign in which he seemed favorably inclined toward legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to eventually earn citizenship.
And then there were those embarrassing revelations in the heat of that campaign about the illegal immigrants tending his own lawn.
Why hasn't Perry fired back?
"It's a long campaign,'' Perry spokesman Mike Miner said on Friday. "Romney has taken a lot of different positions on a lot of issues.''
Perry's failure, so far, to capitalize on the "flip-flop'' epithet that dogged Romney's 2008 campaign reveal the advantages that come with a second run for the White House. Romney's previous support for abortion rights? The similarities between the health care plan he brought to Massachusetts and "Obamacare?'' Been there, done that.
"All that was litigated in the last campaign,'' said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, who advised Romney in 2008 and is neutral in the 2012 race. "One of the rules in politics is that an attack has to change your perception of the candidate, and that's Rick Perry's challenge because it's much harder to do that with old news.''
In an interview with the Boston Globe in 2005, the former governor of Massachusetts described the immigration reform plan championed by former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as "quite different'' from a blanket amnesty program because it would require undocumented workers to register with the government, demonstrate long-term employment, and pay taxes as well as a fine. Romney didn't specifically endorse the legislation but he called those provisions "reasonable proposals.''
The following year, Romney told the Lowell Sun: "I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country. With these 11 million people, let's have them registered, know who they are. Those who've been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn't be here; those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards application for citizenship, as they would from their home country."
Romney's position toward the immigration reform plan in Congress hardened as he moved toward a 2008 presidential bid. After initially trying to deflect reports in The Boston Globe that his landscaping service used illegal Guatemalan immigrants, he fired the company. But he ultimately failed to convince the conservative wing of the party, which dominates presidential primaries, that he was truly one of them.
This election cycle, Romney has tried to avoid the defensive posture that marred his last campaign by focusing on the sputtering economy. Criticizing President Obama's stewardship and touting his own success in the business world has kept him in the lead and won him praise for running a disciplined campaign.
But when Perry bounded into the race and to the top of the polls last month, Romney had no choice but to take on his rival. He suggested Perry couldn't be trusted to preserve Social Security, but the polls showed many Republicans didn't disagree with the Texas governor's characterization of the trust fund as a "Ponzi scheme.'' So Romney seized onto Perry's moderate record on immigration and hasn't let go.
Romney vetoed legislation in 2004 similar to the 2001 law Perry signed in Texas granting in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants. He also has assailed Perry for questioning the effectiveness of a fence along the Mexican border.
"The contrasts between the two candidates couldn’t be more clear,'' said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
In a tacit acknowledgment that the line of attack is working, Perry said on Wednesday that it was "inappropriate'' of him in the last debate to suggest that people who don't support such tuition breaks don't "have a heart.'' But he has not yet seized the upper hand in the race, despite his efforts to trumpet the $400 million Texas has spent on border security and to steer the debate back to Romney's health care record.
The Massachusetts law's requirement that residents buy insurance—similar to the "individual mandate'' in the federal plan—was once viewed as a fatal flaw for Romney. It still could be.
"I think Republican voters will be very forgiving this year if they see a candidate who can beat Obama,'' Castellanos said. "The one thing they won't forgive is weakness.''