WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's belated and wooly engagement in the debate over the legality of Arizona's immigration policy on Monday seems unlikely to offer him much political relief on the topic in the weeks, if not months, ahead.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee took six hours to respond to the Supreme Court's ruling that several of the major provisions in SB 1070 violated the Constitution. And when he did, he spoke in broad terms.
"[G]iven the failure of the immigration policy in this country, I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less," he told a group of donors. "And there are states now that under this decision have less authority, less latitude, to enforce immigration laws." Because the president hasn't acted, Romney said, "it’s a muddle."
The response left political observers wondering what exactly Romney thought about the different portions of the Arizona law, including the one the court left intact: a provision allowing police to ask for those they suspect of being in the country illegally for their papers. But even those lingering vagaries weren't enough to stop Romney's opponents from pouncing. By Wednesday morning, both President Barack Obama's campaign and the White House were arguing that the former governor's statement constituted an implicit endorsement of the controversial Arizona law.
"Once Mitt Romney finally responded yesterday with his thoughts on the ruling, he made clear that he does believe that we should have a patchwork of different state laws on immigration across the country," Ben LaBolt, press secretary for the campaign, said on a conference call. "He had previously expressed support for the Arizona immigration law and called it a national model. In that response, he made it clear that he still believes that today."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney echoed that sentiment during a press gaggle held around the same time, arguing that Romney's response to the court's decision confirmed that and he other Republicans "still believe that the Arizona law is a model for the country."
Romney never appeared to go that far, neither in the past nor on Monday. He praised Arizona for moving forward with reforms in the absence of federal action and argued that the federal government should drop its lawsuits against it and other states. But he was referring to other legislation when he discussed a national model, his aides stressed Wednesday.
"They’re wrong," responded one Romney campaign aide. "Romney never said that the 'Arizona Law' (SB 1070) should be a model for the nation. He did say that he thought a different law passed years before SB1070 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011 that deals with e-Verify should be a model. Since Romney supports a national e-Verify system."
The debate, in the end, boils down to whether opposing the federal government's objection to Arizona's immigration reforms is synonymous with supporting those reforms themselves. It certainly hasn't helped Romney that his campaign has largely avoided answering such questions since entering the general election campaign.
But if the presumptive Republican nominee faces attacks from across the ideological aisle, he also remains vulnerable within his own party. Several conservative organizations in the past few weeks have begun pushing immigration reform proposals under the radar. The proposals, depending on one's perspective, could either give Romney a lifeline on the topic or prove to be a campaign headache.
Crossroads GPS, Karl Rove's political advocacy group, recently endorsed a bipartisan bill that eased restrictions on highly educated or skilled workers who were hoping to enter the country for employment purposes. The substance of the proposal isn't far off from Romney's pledge to ease worker visa programs and grant greater green card access to undocumented Americans. But the Romney campaign did not respond to a request for his position on the idea.
A trickier situation may have developed in Texas, where the Republican Party has adopted the platform it is planning to push at the Republican National Convention.
Dubbed "The Texas Solution," it includes hardline conservative elements, including a pledge for full border security and a proposal to redefine birthright citizenship as belonging to someone "born to a citizen of the United States with no exceptions." But the platform also calls for a national guest-worker program and declares that the deportation of the 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country would be neither "equitable nor practical," measures that could cause rifts within the broader GOP.
"It is frustrating to see that in conservative Republican politics, immigration has become a third rail, which is crazy," said Brad Bailey, founder and CEO of the Hard Work Clean Hands Initiative, the conservative 501c4 group that helped craft the platform.
"We are here to support Governor Romney," Bailey said. "We want to get our plan in front of him, and say, 'Hey, let's lead with solutions and not rhetoric.'"
Below, more reaction to the Supreme Court's decision on Arizona's immigration law from around the political world: