In an effort to appeal to the group, he tried to soften his immigration position but backed limited steps.
ORLANDO, FLA. - Mitt Romney, who courted conservative primary voters with hard-line opposition to illegal immigration, took a first step Thursday toward trying to soften his image among skeptical Hispanic voters, pledging to speak in a "civil and resolute manner" and saying he would loosen some restrictions on the flow of legal foreign workers.
But the presumed GOP presidential nominee showed that he is not prepared to back down from many of the positions that have put him at odds with some immigrants, advocacy groups and members of his party.
He did not say what should happen to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, nor did he mention the Dream Act, the stalled legislation he previously vowed to veto that would legalize young people brought to the country as children. He did not repeat his plan to encourage illegal immigrants to "self-deport."
Instead, he told about 1,000 attendees at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials meeting at Disney World that President Obama had not fulfilled his promises for Hispanics. Obama is to address the group Friday -- the first time he has attended the NALEO gathering, as Romney pointed out, since 2008.
Romney said of Obama: "He will imply that you don't really have an alternative. I believe he's taking your vote for granted. I come here today with a very simple message: You do have an alternative."
What's at stake
The appearances underscore the growing importance of Hispanic voters, particularly in battleground states such as Colorado, Nevada and Virginia that are vital to the president's re-election strategy. Polls show that among Latino adults, Obama holds a lead of 68 percent to Romney's 30 percent, said Washington Post-ABC News surveys -- but GOP strategists think that increasing Romney's share to 40 percent could be enough to win the election.
Obama heightened the pressure on Romney last week with his administration's move to halt the deportations of hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants. The issue will return to the fore next week, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Obama administration's challenge to Arizona's anti-illegal-immigration law, which Romney supported.
Romney ridiculed the president's action on deportations, which grants "deferred action" to certain law-abiding immigrants younger than 30. But he stopped short of promising he would reverse the policy, saying he would "put in place my own long- term solution."
He pledged to help illegal immigrants who are serving in the military, but did not mention that illegal immigrants are barred from service.
'Chose to double down'
Democrats and liberal immigration advocates denounced the speech as a sign that he plans to hew closely to the wishes of the conservative Republican base. Said Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN: "He had a chance to start fresh, but chose to double down on a set of policies simply unacceptable to the vast majority of Latinos."
Romney, who has staked out a hard-line stance against illegal immigration, faces a steep challenge. Even some Republicans criticized the tone of his past statements. But Romney sought to answer the concerns, saying: "I'm going to address the issue ... in a civil and resolute manner."