After his narrow victory in Iowa and resounding win in New Hampshire , Mitt Romney may well be on his way to locking up the Republican nomination before the primary is even a month old. But the damage that the GOP fight has done to his chances of winning the general election may prove to be severe if he cannot convince Latino voters to give him another shot.
While Romney's efforts to woo his party's conservative voters have clearly helped him in the two contests thus far, the former Massachusetts governor has veered far to the right on the issue that most affects Latinos: immigration.
Only days before the Iowa caucuses, for instance, Romney said that as president he would veto the DREAM Act , a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented children of immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. The fall-out from Latinos was immediate. The next day I asked Juan Rodriguez, a Republican businessman in Des Moines, if he would back Romney. Rodriguez didn't hesitate in his response.
"I wouldn't vote for Romney because he doesn't support immigration reform or the DREAM Act," he said. "My business depends on Hispanics basically, and if there's no immigration reform we are going to be very affected. Not just me, but all the businesses that, like us, depend on the Latino community."
The next week in New Hampshire, I sat down with Esteban and Selma Lopez, a Latino couple in Goffstown who will vote for the first time in the general election this fall, and asked if they could imagine voting for Romney now.
"I work in education and I know first-hand how important the DREAM Act is for Latino youth, for kids who are in this country without having taken part in the decision to come here," Lopez replied. "The short answer is, I wouldn't vote for Romney."
Even the country's largest Latino Republican group - Somos Republicans - said they would oppose Romney due to his immigration policies.
The Obama campaign has wasted no time in trying to portray Romney as the most extreme candidate on the issue of immigration. In the days since Romney's DREAM Act statement, a slew of Latino Democrats has fanned out to rip Romney. After all, there's a lot at stake here: Latinos are the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc, with an estimated 12.2 million set to vote in this year's general election, according to a projection by the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials (NALEO).
"It really demonstrates how far he is from understanding the issue," said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez of Texas, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, on a conference call with reporters last week. "I understand that in that particular field one will try to out-pander another, but you still have to be responsible."
"How do you paint yourself into such a corner on immigration where you can't walk back from that statement?" he asked.
On primary night in New Hampshire I sat down with Rep. Xavier Becerra , D-Calif., who emphasized that Democrats are going to remind Latino voters time and time again about Romney's immigration stance.