GOP nominee Mitt Romney found himself on the defensive at a Wednesday forum with Latino voters, fielding sharp questions about his comments at a closed-door fundraiser, immigration reform, and Arizona’s controversial immigration law before the event shifted to his preferred subject of the economy.
The first question that the former Massachusetts governor received during the forum, which was broadcast live online by the Spanish-language network Univision, put Romney in the position of again explaining comments from a secretly recorded video at a fundraiser, when he said that 47 percent of the country wouldn’t vote for him because they depend on government assistance.
“My campaign is about the 100 percent of Americans,” Romney said, arguing that his record of accomplishments in Massachusetts prove his commitment to the whole nation.
“This is a campaign about helping people who need help,” he said. “And right now the people who are poor in this country need help getting out of poverty. The people in the middle class need help because their incomes have gone down every year over the last four years.”
Romney had hardly gotten through the first question when he was asked about President Obama’s decision to defer deportation for young illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. He used it as an opportunity to criticize Obama for breaking a promise to tackle immigration reform during his first year in office.
“He never even filed a bill. He never tried to fix the immigration system, so it's time to put the politics aside, and I will actually reform the immigration system,” he said. During his closing remarks, Romney said the issue had been used as a “political football.”
But that wasn’t enough for one of the hosts, Maria Elena Salinas, after Romney had declined to say whether he would continue that policy for two straight questions.
“With all due respect," Salinas said, “your reluctance to provide details on a permanent solution has created maybe a perception that you are kind of evading the question.”
Finally, he answered, “We’re not going to round up 12 million people, that includes the kids and the parents, and have everyone deported. Our system isn’t to deport people. We need to provide a long-term solution.” But he did not specify whether he would extend the president's policy.
He also tried to soften his rhetoric from the primary campaign, when he had endorsed a policy of self-deportation, telling the audience on Wednesday that illegal immigrants would have to “make their own choices as to whether they want to go home.”
Then it was onto the controversial Arizona immigration law, which he had once called a model for the nation. Did he still think it was?
“The reason there is an Arizona law is because the federal government and specifically President Obama didn't solve the immigration problem when he came into office, and so states are doing their best to try and solve it state by state and each state tries to solve it in their own way,” Romney said.
The “right answer,” he added, was to have a long-term federal solution, though he gave few details.
The Obama campaign picked up on the lack of specificity, alleging that Hispanic Americans don’t trust the GOP candidate.
“On critical issues, he continued to refuse to answer any of the tough questions or provide any specifics on what he’d do as president," said Stephanie Cutter, the Obama campaign's deputy campaign manager. "We are just two weeks away from the first presidential debate, where the American people will demand more than vague answers and empty platitudes. It’s time for Mitt Romney to come clean and get specific about his policies.”
At one point, Romney found himself answering for his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, whose budgets have proposed spending cuts that could hit the Pell grant college funding program. Romney said his preference would be to have the grants grow at the rate of inflation.
The second half of the roughly 30-minute program, which included questions from both the hosts and University of Miami students in attendance, gave Romney more openings to focus on the economy.
When a student asked how he would ease the debt burden of young people, Romney said the best thing he could do for students is to make sure they have a job upon graduation.
“I don’t want to overwhelm you with debts,” Romney said. “I want you to make sure you can pay back the debts you’ve already got, and that will happen with good jobs. And that’s why my five-point plan to get 12 million new jobs in this country is the best thing I can do for you.”
He also won applause from the audience for endorsing some rights for gay couples (though not marriage), when asked a hypothetical question about what he would do if his child or grandchild were gay and wanted to get married.
“Well, my kids are all married, so I’d be surprised,” he quipped, to cheers and laughter from the audience. “I of course would want them to be happy. My view is this, that individuals should be able to pursue a relationship of love and respect and raise a family as they would choose.
"I would like to have the term 'marriage' continue to be associated with a relationship between one man and one woman, and that certainly ... doesn’t prevent two people of the same gender living in a loving relationship together having a gay domestic partnership, if you will.”