LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney used an economic message and a pledge to fix the U.S. immigration system on Monday to make a fresh appeal to Hispanic voters to consider breaking away from their overwhelming support for President Barack Obama.
“I am convinced that the Republican Party is the rightful home of Hispanic Americans,” Romney told about 1,400 Hispanic business leaders.
The Romney campaign is under no illusions that Hispanic voters will abruptly shift their support from the Democratic incumbent, after Republicans took hard-line stands against illegal immigrants during their primary season. Romney said in one debate that undocumented workers should “self-deport” from the United States.
But Romney would like to reduce Obama’s edge in a Hispanic voting group, which could be critical in several swing states where the November 6 election is likely to be decided.
Romney is making the effort by pointing out that Hispanic unemployment is at 10 percent, higher than the national average of 8.1 percent. He received polite applause throughout his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles but had to compete with a video message from Obama that was played moments before Romney took the stage.
Romney chose his address to the Hispanic business leaders as a vehicle for launching an effort to provide more specifics of his economic proposals. He has been accused of running a campaign that has been long on rhetoric with little detail about how he would revitalize the U.S. economy.
Romney gave some specifics on how he would improve the U.S. immigration system, pledging to work with Republicans and Democrats for a permanent fix.
He said he would structure the U.S. temporary worker visa program in a way that meets the needs of employers and establish an employment verification system so businesses would know whether new hires were legally eligible for employment.
“Americans may disagree about how to fix our immigration system but I think we can all agree that it is broken,” Romney said.
A Gallup poll in June said 66 percent of Hispanic voters planned to vote for Obama, compared to 25 percent for Romney. The same survey said 20 percent of Hispanics cited unemployment as their biggest challenge, the same percentage as the issue usually associated with them, immigration. This is why Romney spent more time on jobs and the economy than immigration.
His central theme on Monday was how to make a dent in the annual $1 trillion budget deficits that have been run up by Obama as the president grapples with an economy that is not producing enough tax revenue to meet the demands of government spending.
Romney said he would pursue a 5 percent cut in non-security discretionary spending on his first day in office as a first step toward bringing federal spending back to its historical level of 20 percent of GDP, down from about 25 percent now.
He would eliminate programs that are not absolutely essential and cut federal subsidies for Amtrak, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. He would cut the government workforce by 10 percent through attrition.
Most of these ideas he has talked about in the past but the Romney campaign said many Americans are just now tuning in the campaign and wanted to hear more about what the former Massachusetts governor would do as president.
The Obama campaign said Romney did not provide enough specifics. “The debut of Mitt Romney’s new campaign of specifics was a flop,” said spokeswoman Lis Smith.
Romney did not get into the specifics of how he would patch up a deep divide between Democrats and Republicans on the approach to repairing the U.S. immigration system.
The last serious attempt at an immigration overhaul was made by Republican President George W. Bush in 2007 but it collapsed in Congress as conservatives rebelled. They said the plan called for an amnesty for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States.
After promising during his 2008 campaign to take on the immigration issue, Obama never followed through, leading to disappointment among various Hispanic groups.
Romney said Obama’s inability to work on the problem was a failure. The president, in his video message to the business conference, pledged anew to work toward a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott