LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida (Reuters) - Presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to make up ground with Hispanic voters on Thursday after he and Republican rivals took hard-line stances against illegal immigration in the primary season.
Caught flat-footed by President Barack Obama on immigration last week, Romney promised a long-term solution to let young illegal immigrants stay in the United States, but offered only a few minor proposals.
Romney told a meeting of a national Hispanic group in Florida that he would “replace and supersede” Obama’s executive order allowing hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents to avoid being sent home.
“Some people have asked if I will let stand the president’s executive action. The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure,” Romney told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
But he did not say whether he would repeal the order if elected president on November 6 and was greeted with tepid applause and a few scattered boos.
It was Romney’s first address to a major Latino group since May, when he surprised many by avoiding the topic of immigration and talking instead about education.
His speech on Thursday came a day before Obama addresses the same Hispanic group. An announcement after Romney’s speech that Obama would appear on Friday drew cheers.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, won few friends among Hispanics during the primary season, by arguing that undocumented workers could “self-deport” themselves out of the country.
Former Republican presidential rival Herman Cain took the rhetoric against illegal immigrants further when he joked about setting up an electrified fence in the border with Mexico.
Polls show Obama has a huge advantage of about 75 percent to 25 percent over Romney among Latino voters. Latino voters will likely be key in swing states like Florida and Colorado.
Obama’s announcement on immigration last week put Romney on the defensive just as the Republican was rising in the polls and enjoying his best few weeks of the campaign.
It also effectively killed off a plan for a similar immigration proposal by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American who is being vetted as a possible Romney vice presidential pick.
Obama has enjoyed a slight bounce in polls in recent days. A Quinnipiac poll on Thursday showed a 10-point swing in favor of Obama in battleground state Florida from last month.
The latest poll put him 4 points ahead of Romney in Florida, which is beginning to grow again after suffering steep unemployment and a severe housing crisis.
Bloomberg News reported that Romney’s aides had asked Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, to play down improvements in the state’s economy so as not to clash with the presidential candidate’s message of weak growth under Obama.
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, said Romney had “truly sunk to a new low” and that it was a sign he was willing to “throw the middle class under the bus.”
Moving away from his main campaign message on jobs, Romney accused Obama on Thursday of taking Hispanics for granted on immigration.
“He failed to act until facing a tough re-election and trying to secure your vote,” Romney said.
On Thursday, he offered a half-dozen modest immigration proposals, including raising the limits on immigrants from some specific countries, streamlining the temporary worker visa program and reallocating green cards to family of citizens and legal permanent residents.
“As president, I won’t settle for a stop-gap measure. I will work with Republicans and Democrats to find a long-term solution,” Romney told the conference. “I will prioritize measures that strengthen legal immigration and make it easier. And I will address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner.”
A comprehensive immigration package that would deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States has been blocked in Congress for years by partisan gridlock. Most illegal immigrants in the United States are Hispanics.
Romney’s speech was panned by many attendees at the conference and Hispanic activists, although they noted he had at least softened his tone.
“He shows a change in tone, but he really doesn’t address the actual policy,” said Cesar Vargas, a leader of United We Dream, an advocacy group for undocumented youth.
Obama’s order allowed illegal immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16 to avoid deportation, as long as they have been here five years, are in school or have graduated or are serving in the military.
It was similar to the Dream Act, a highly popular proposal with Hispanics that Obama has backed but Senate Republicans blocked. During the Republican primaries, Romney vowed to veto the Dream Act.
Romney’s stance on immigration could be further complicated when the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling, expected within days, on an Arizona law that requires police to determine immigration status if they arrest someone they think might be in the country illegally.
Romney endorsed the law while campaigning for the Republican nomination, and said it would be a model for the nation as a whole. But it is fiercely unpopular among Latino voters who view it as racial profiling.
Romney is gathering his top advisers, big donors and fundraisers this weekend for a retreat in Park City, Utah,
Guests are expected to include political heavyweights Karl Rove, possible vice presidential pick Tim Pawlenty and Jeb Bush.
Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney