BOSTON –- Mitt Romney's campaign manager admitted regret that the Republican challenger took such a hardline stance on immigration during the GOP primary, one of the first clear acknowledgements by the Romney campaign that its candidate hurt himself among Latino voters.
Matt Rhoades, who oversaw Romney's campaign, gathered with other top decision makers from both Romney's and President Barack Obama's campaigns at Harvard University's Institute of Politics Thursday for the "Campaign Managers Conference," which the school has hosted every four years since 1972. The session was on the record, but embargoed until an audio recording was posted online Monday.
During a discussion of the primary, Rhoades and top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens were asked whether they regretted attacking former GOP candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry on the immigration issue in the summer and fall of 2011.
Stevens, 59, shook his head. But Rhoades, 37, answered the question.
"I regret that ..." Rhoades said, before stopping himself, and phrasing his answer differently.
Rhoades went on to describe how the Romney campaign may have regarded Perry as a mortal threat for too long, leading it to engage him beyond the point when it was necessary, and setting itself up for a hard-right turn on immigration.
"If you look through the unwinding of the Perry campaign, a lot of people put a focus on that one infamous debate moment," Rhoades said, referring to Perry's epic "oops" moment at an early November debate in Detroit, when Perry could not remember the three federal agencies he planned to eliminate.
"But it was the earliest debates, the first and second debates," Rhoades said. "And by the third debate, and this was well before the other moment, I think Governor Perry was badly hurt."
Rhoades reflected on how Romney had inflicted damage on Perry in early September with attacks on his comments that Social Security was a "Ponzi scheme" and his plan to turn the plan over to state governments.
"In retrospect, I believe we probably could have just beaten Governor Perry with the Social Security hit," Rhoades said.
Perry's support in Texas of giving in-state college tuition rates to children of undocumented immigrants did not become an issue until a Sept. 22 debate, when former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum attacked him for his stance, prompting Perry to say that those who disagreed with him "don't have a heart." Romney pounced on Perry's comment, and from there, he ran hard to the right of Perry on immigration. Any chance that Perry might recover from his terrible performances in most of the debates was extinguished in Iowa, ahead of the state's Jan. 3 caucuses, by the immigration issue.
A hardline stance on immigration was a big part of Romney's primary race platform from late September on, even after Perry faded. A few days before the Iowa caucuses, as Romney was locked in a battle with Santorum for the state, he vowed to veto the Dream Act, a plan to give some children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.
And perhaps most harmful to his relationship with Latinos, Romney said he supported creating an environment where undocumented immigrants "self-deported." Prominent Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush criticized Romney for this stance.
But the damage was done. Romney lost Latino voters by a huge margin in the general election last month, getting only 27 percent of the nation's biggest and fastest-growing minority group. In 2004, President George W. Bush got between 40 and 44 percent of the Latino vote, and in 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) did almost as badly as Romney, with only 31 percent.
Even before the election this year, Republican operatives such as Ed Gillespie -– who went on to work in a senior role on the Romney campaign -– were warning that if the GOP did not soften its sometimes "anti-immigrant" rhetoric and become a party more welcoming to Latinos, it would be harm the party's long-term future.
In the wake of a second consecutive election where the Republican presidential candidate performed woefully among the key voting bloc, many in the party are resolving that short-term political considerations can no longer determine the party's course on the issue. One Republican consultant who worked for Romney told The Huffington Post after the election that he "kept a lot of conservatives away from [Perry] on immigration because I had to."
He added: "I won't ever do it again."
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist on his reelection campaign, said at the Harvard conference that Romney's positioning on immigration was indicative of a broader pattern in the Republican's campaign.
"Here's my observation of the Romney campaign. It seems to me that they always were doing what they needed to get through the next thing, on the theory that just being on the ballot against Barack Obama, as vulnerable as he was, was enough," Axelrod said. "And so, if you had to run to the right of Perry on immigration, you run to the right of Perry on immigration. If you have to run to the right of Santorum on social issues, you run to the right of Santorum."
Rhoades, however, said it was hard to think about the general election during the primary.
"When you're running for the nomination, you've got to win the nomination. If you're looking beyond securing the nomination too much, you are jeopardizing your chances of winning the nomination," he said.