WASHINGTON -- In a campaign appearance on Monday in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney was asked how to woo voters to the Republican party and to his candidacy. Out of the blue, he started talking about Latino voters.
"Perhaps one of the best tests would be to take a group like, uh, like, um, Latino Americans, and say, 'How can I convince more Latino Americans to, say, support a Republican?'" Romney said. "If I can do that, why, I will be doing well pretty broadly."
He's right, of course. Latino voters are about 9 percent of the American electorate, and that number is expected to rise this election and much more in the years to come. President Barack Obama's reelection effort has made Hispanic voters a top priority.
Romney's comment was striking because the former Massachusetts governor has not talked about Latino voters much during this election, except when he's been taking a hard line on immigration reform. He has said that all undocumented immigrants should have to return to their countries of origin and that he would veto the Dream Act. He battered Texas Gov. Rick Perry for passing a law in the Lone Star State allowing children of undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition to Texas universities.
In an interview with The Huffington Post a few days before the Iowa caucuses, Romney refused to engage the question of whether his positions on immigration might hurt his ability to win Latinos.
His unprompted reference to Hispanic voters was the first signal that after narrowly winning the Iowa caucuses –- where the Republican electorate is agitated about the issue of illegal immigration -– Romney is aiming to make up some ground that might have been lost.
"I think he recognizes that in a general election context, and I think he's starting to think in a general election context, I think he realizes he's got to undo some damage there," said a leading Republican strategist, who asked not to be identified so he could speak more frankly about the negative impact of Romney's positions so far on the issue.
When asked how much damage has been done, the strategist said "dismayed would be too strong" to describe his feelings, but he is "concerned."
The second signal of a Romney moderation came on Wednesday, when his campaign released a Spanish-language ad aimed at Latino voters in Florida. The ad featured Spanish-language narration by Romney's son Craig, and Romney himself spoke Spanish at the end.
The same day, Romney also announced the endorsement of Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who helped write laws meant to drive immigrants out of states like Arizona and Alabama.
There's a simple explanation for the seemingly conflicting messages. The Spanish-language ad was launched in anticipation of the Jan. 31 Florida primary. And Kobach's endorsement was meant to appeal to voters in South Carolina, ahead of the Jan. 21 primary there. South Carolina's legislature has passed a law similar to Arizona's, and the Obama administration has sued to overturn the law in both states, as well as in Alabama and Utah.
Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said the frontrunner's campaign was "certainly not changing any message."
Immigration "was hot in Iowa," Gitcho said, and "that was one way to distinguish" Romney from Perry. But Gitcho said that "our message is going to continue to be about jobs and the economy."
Although immigration isn't the most important issue to most Latino voters, rhetoric that surrounds it has an impact. About 30 percent of Latino voters in a Univision-Latino Decisions poll said they believe Republicans are "outright hostile" to them. Most supported the Dream Act and other measures that would provide legal status to some undocumented immigrants, and 66 percent said Republicans seem to be attempting to obscure the issue of reform by focusing on border security.
The coming Florida primary will require Romney to have, at the very least, a different tone toward Latinos that will contrast with the way he has talked about immigration in the past. And that shift will only accelerate in a general election, said Rob Collins, a Republican consultant who earlier this year helped launch the Hispanic Leadership Network.
"With regards to how we communicate with the Hispanic community, the traditional Republican position that Romney's taken may hurt, but it's not a deal-breaker," Collins said. "As we've seen from all the Hispanic elected officials we added to our team in 2010, you can be very aggressive on illegal immigration and still win the Hispanic vote.
"From 2008 to today we've made massive strides by adding Hispanics to the ranks of elected Republicans, and they're all young and exciting. It's nothing to sneeze at," Collins said.
Democrats gave notice that they won't let Romney forget the hardline stances he took over the past few months.
"Romney can’t walk back from the extreme positions he’s taken," said Ricardo Ramirez, a Democratic National Committee spokesman. "On the issue of immigration, he’d be the most extreme presidential candidate of our time."
Elise Foley contributed to this article.