Mitt Romney really cares a lot about illegal immigrants, when it gives him an opening against his chief political rival. He's pounding away at the issue lately, because Texas Governor Rick Perry, much like Texas Governor George W. Bush before him, has a relatively squishy record on harsh treatment of the undocmented. Likewise, four years ago Romney hammered on the topic furiously against US Senator John McCain, co-author of failed legislation dubbed "amnesty lite" by conservatives. (This was apparently a pejorative.)
In between, though, the issue seemed to take a back seat for Romney. In particular, it is barely a blip in the document he now points to as the source of all answers about his policy positions -- "No Apology," his 2010 book.
Immigration policy pops up only once, deep inside a subsection of Chapter 5: A Free and Productive Economy. (ICE is mentioned once elsewhere, in an unrelated context, and at one other point Romney briefly muses on the pros and cons of immigrant families' attitudes toward education.)
In writing about the need for a highly educated workforce, Romney posits that we should make it much easier for highly skilled foreigners to stay in the US after graduating from MIT or Cal Tech. He then writes that "Our immigration practices are literally upside down" (literally?), because we let "millions" of people without needed skills enter the country illegally, while forcing the worthy ones to wait in line.
The entire discussion lasts two paragraphs, and says very little about actually addressing the illegal-immigrant 'problem.' It is pretty well encapsulated in point #16 of his 64-point policy epilogue -- the only point relating to immigration policy: "Reform immigration to attract and retain talent, simplify the legal process, and end illegal immigration."
To me, the virtual absence of the topic in the book was a sure sign that Romney was maneuvering to the center for his 2012 run, and downplaying the red-meat rhetoric he had adopted, ultimately without success, the last time around.
In '08, the immigrant-bashing strategy worked a little, but not enough. New Hampshire primary exit polls showed that half of the GOP voters favored deporting illegal immigrants, with the other half split among less harsh options; among the toss-'em-out crowd, Romney beat McCain 40%-24%, which was not enough to make up for McCain beating Romney badly among the others.
Perhaps even more telling, Romney clobbered McCain 56%-19% among the roughly quarter of the GOP electorate for whom illegal immigration was the "most important issue" in deciding their vote, while McCain won among everybody who had more pressing issues on their agenda.
Those numbers were closely mirrored in exit polls elsewhere, including the decisive McCain victory in Florida.
Bear in mind that not only is the issue far less important to Republican voters now than it was in February 2007, but the New Hampshire GOP primary (and other open primaries) is expected to draw far more moderates and independents this time, given the absence of a Democratic contest. And while Perry may have the occassional specific policy difference, as on in-state tuition, he's not the high-profile apostate that McCain was on the issue.
I suspect that Perry's loss of momentum has at least something to do with Romney's aggressive leap back into caring passionately about the awful illegals. But I find it hard to imagine that it's going to prove fatal to Perry.It certainly does show, however, that Romney continues to jump around to whatever rhetoric seems best suited to his momentary political needs.