TEMPE, Ariz. -- One week after a concerted effort to make up ground with women voters, Mitt Romney started a push Friday in Arizona to reduce President Barack Obama's lead with Latinos nationwide and in this reliably Republican state that Democrats are trying to put into play.
Romney put outreach to Hispanic voters at the center of a daylong campaign swing through the state. He attended a lunch with Republican National Committee members in Scottsdale, where he was greeted by the party establishment as their de facto nominee.
But he did not bask in the RNC welcome for long. He left the event after a somewhat lengthy speech and headed 20 minutes south to a roundtable conversation in Tempe with Hispanic business owners and local officials.
"I'm here … to get your perspective on what I might do to make it easier for small businesses to thrive, or education to work, or immigration policies to work if I were so fortunate to become president. " Romney said, seated at a square table with white table cloths in the Arizona Historical Society Museum.
As Romney spoke with the group of six men and three women -- two of them from the state attorney general's office -– his campaign announced that he would travel on Monday to Pennsylvania, a key swing state, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), the best-known U.S. Republican Latino politician.
Romney's appearance with Rubio will stoke speculation about whether Romney will choose the 41-year old senator as his running mate. But the more immediate question is whether Romney will endorse a proposal by Rubio on Thursday to give U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
Romney's campaign has not embraced Rubio's proposal, expected to be a more conservative alternative to the Democratic-embraced Dream Act. Romney's campaign said the candidate will not actually endorse Rubio's broad sketch of a plan until the senator releases details. A Romney spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about Romney's scheduled appearance with Rubio on Monday.
But it became clear last weekend that Romney knows his hardline stances on immigration in the Republican primary have put him in a position that he must fix. Latinos are a growing and influential voting bloc in key battleground states including Virginia, Colorado and Florida, and the Obama campaign is making an effort to register enough Hispanic voters in Arizona to make the state competitive.
"There's a new energy that's in the air now in large part because of how the Republicans have handled issues," Daniel R. Ortega, a Phoenix attorney active in Democratic politics, told The Huffington Post. "Our community is dead serious about getting out to vote."
Over the last few months, Romney said he would veto the Dream Act, which provides U.S. residency for undocumented immigrants who arrive as children, graduate U.S. high schools and have lived here continuously for at least five years. Romney said all undocumented immigrants should have to return to their country of origin, and spoke favorably of the controversial Arizona law known as SB 1070, which allows law enforcement to ask for documentation during routine traffic stops.
Romney made clear during a fundraiser last Sunday closed to the press but overheard by reporters that he must moderate his views.
“We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party,” Romney told a crowd of donors. Polling numbers on Hispanic voter support “spells doom for us," he said.
Obama held a 64 percent to 24 percent advantage over Romney among Hispanics in a recent Quinnipiac poll. The former Massachusetts governor's flurry of moves on Friday represented his first steps to repair the damage.
During Romney's conversation in Tempe with Latino leaders, Manuel Pacheco, a former president of several universities including the University of Arizona, pleaded with Romney to say whether he will help U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.
"I think it would be good if from your perspective … if there were a way that you could provide at least some signal or a glimmer of hope for some of these students who are obviously worried about this," Pacheco said.
"I think that they do need some assistance and some recognition for the work that they are doing in school," Pacheco said. "It would be a shame, I think, to lose that particular talent that they bring. I would urge you to make that nod at some point in the near future, that would give them a kind of hope."
Romney was entirely noncommittal.
"Thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you," he said, then nodded to the next women at the table and indicated she should begin talking. "Yes!"
Romney appeared to be moving the conversation along quickly to spare the few hundred supporters waiting outside in nearly 100-degree heat to hear him speak. Even so, his non-answer to Pacheco demonstrated his caution on this subject, provocative to many conservative supporters.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz), who introduced Romney to the crowd outside, told them, "This isn't even a dry heat. This is just hot."
Two of the women at the roundtable emphasized their support for SB 1070 and for tough immigration laws.
"Many people in Arizona want to make sure that we have legal immigration. We want to be a country of laws and not of crime," said Margaret Dugan, the chief of staff for Attorney General Tom Horne.
Voter surveys indicate that if Romney can find a way to yield on immigration, he could go a long way toward improving his standing in the Latino community. A Univision poll last fall showed that the economy is a higher priority issue for most Hispanics than immigration, but that 59 percent of Latinos said they'd be "less likely to vote for a candidate if they said they could 'never support amnesty.'"
The Romney campaign made the economy the central thrust of the pitch to Hispanics, blasting out a web page showing the recession's impact on them.
State House Minority Whip Anna Tovar, a Democrat, said Romney will never win most Latinos.
"Romney just does not get Latinos and does not care about Latinos," Tovar said in an interview. "It's time to definitely move forward, and what I see Romney as is taking us back a few generations, where the issue of being color is a big issue."Elise Foley contributed to this report.