JANESVILLE, Wis. — Randy Braden doesn’t have a problem with President Obama’s decision to effectively stop trying to deport many children of illegal immigrants, but he does have a problem with the way he went about it.
The 60-year-old retired agriculture worker from nearby Milton is one of a number of people who turned out Monday for Mitt Romney’s “Every Town Counts” bus trip through small towns and cities that expressed a willingness to cut this group of illegal immigrants some slack — a sharp departure from the past when presidential candidates were given little wiggle room on the issue.
“It probably is the right thing to do; however, like a lot of things, it is a short-term fix,” Mr. Braden said, alluding to Mr. Obama’s announcement Friday that the Department of Justice would stop deporting some young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. “If he was really serious about illegal immigration and reform, he should have been doing that the first two years in office” when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate.
The muted reaction on the ground — and Mr. Romney’s carefully modulated response over the weekend to Mr. Obama’s surprise order — could signal an unexpected shift in what has been one of the country’s thorniest political issues, a shift that comes as the ranks of illegal immigrants in the country have stalled for the first time in years.
While Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, faced some uncomfortable moments on CBS’ “Face the Nation” as he declined to take a firm stand on Mr. Obama’s order, he also avoided handing Democrats an opening to attack him and undermine his standing with Hispanic voters or with hard-liners in his own party on border security.
“Given that the issue of what to do with young illegals divides Republicans, the response he gave was the only one he could have given,” GOP strategist Trevor Francis said. “It was effective, given the constrictions involved, because it allows him to expand his position on immigration as the campaign unfolds.”
After Mr. Romney staked out a strong position on illegal immigration in the early stages of the GOP primary contest, many GOP operatives and interest groups seemed relieved that Mr. Romney did not rise to the president’s bait in attacking the new immigration policy.
“Only time will tell if [the order] was a shrewd move or not,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has backed tough policies on controlling immigration. “It could cost more swing states than boost base votes for Obama.”
An analysis last week by the Pew Hispanic Center estimate that as many as 1.4 million children and young adults now in the country illegally could benefit from Mr. Obama’s order, including about 700,000 illegal immigrants ages 18 to 30.
In past years, some Republicans have supported Democratic efforts to create some sort of legal status for certain illegal immigrants, but it was a GOP-led filibuster that blocked a broadly written version of the so-called “Dream Act” in the 2010 lame-duck session of Congress. GOP strategists recognize that Mr. Romney must improve his standing with Hispanic voters — one of the fastest-growing voting blocs and one that could be decisive to several key swing states — to have a chance in November.
Mr. Obama’s Friday announcement has hung over Mr. Romney’s six-state bus trip, putting the former Massachusetts governor in the complicated position of trying to woo conservatives who support an aggressive anti-illegal-immigrant stance while trying to narrow the president’s significant lead among Hispanic voters.
There are a few signs, though, that Mr. Romney, who mentioned the president’s immigration order — briefly — for the first time on the stump late Monday, might have wiggle room on the issue, at least with some Rust Belt voters.
Diana Robinson, a “60-plus” retiree from Troy, Ohio, said she is fine with the president’s proposal and made a point of saying, “I don’t hate immigrants.”
But she also thought that if Mr. Obama were sincere about confronting the issue, he would have taken action during his first two years in office when Democrats controlled all the levers of power in Washington. “So I think it is politically motivated, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with it,” she said.
Jim Schick, 52, gave a blunt assessment while he waited for Mr. Romney to appear at a campaign stop in the Cleveland suburbs. “I think the cat is out of the bag,” Mr. Schick said. “You can’t send young people back to Mexico.”
Mr. Schick said the immigration issue could be neutralized for Republicans if Mr. Romney taps Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American conservative, as a running mate and embraces an immigration policy that aims to ensure illegal immigrants are paying taxes and working to become legal citizens, while deporting criminal illegal immigrants.
“It is inhumane to think that you are going to send those people back,” Mr. Schick said, alluding to young adults. “They are in our schools. They are pledging allegiance to the flag, just like everybody else.”
Dialing down the rhetoric
Romney advisers think that would needlessly restrict his actions once in the Oval Office and is unnecessary at this point in the campaign. For the first time in many decades, more voters say that deciding what to do with illegals already here is more important than border security, and a recent Gallup poll found that only 2 percent of likely voters list immigration as an important issue this election year, down 17 percentage points from a similar Gallup survey in 2006.
In addition, a Bloomberg News poll released Tuesday showed that voters liked Mr. Obama’s move by a margin of more than 2-1. The telephone survey of 734 likely voters, taken from Friday to Monday and with an error margin of 3.6 percentage points, showed 64 percent of respondents favoring the president’s order, 30 percent opposing and 6 percent saying they were not sure.
But even the most outspoken interest groups promoting border security and enforcement of the laws against illegal immigrants say they do not rule out some compromise short of mass deportation for illegal immigrants and their children.
“The Dream Act is a tough one,” said Steven Camarata, research director for the Center of Immigration Studies. “If Romney does something like the Dream bill, it’s not necessarily a winner.”
Mr. Obama’s move may “help marginally with liberal voters and Hispanics,” Mr. Camarata said. “But how much help is questionable — 69 percent of the Hispanic vote, up from 67 percent, [while] at same time alienating white voters in the Midwest.”
“That’s not to say we could never support a limited form of Dream Act,” Mr. Camarata said.
• Ralph Z. Hallow reported from Washington.
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