Mitt Romney plans to hammer Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry on immigration in a bid to win over conservative voters in South Carolina, where the GOP front-runner has a narrow lead in polls.
Romney intends to highlight his credentials as a firm opponent of illegal immigration in an appearance Monday with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), who worked with state legislators on Arizona’s controversial immigration law.
Appeals on immigration could be a winning formula in South Carolina, where the Legislature earlier this year passed a strict anti-illegal immigration law modeled on Arizona’s measure, which the Justice Department has sought to block.
The Hispanic population of South Carolina has ballooned in the last decade, growing 148 percent since 2000. Latinos now account for more than 5 percent of the state’s population.
It could also prove a potent attack on Gingrich and Perry, who could be vulnerable to charges, potent in a race for conservative votes, that they are soft on stopping illegal immigration.
Both Perry and Gingrich, who are vying to keep their campaigns alive with strong showings in South Carolina, have come out against deporting every immigrant who entered the country without authorization.
Perry also signed into Texas law a bill that allowed in-state tuition for some undocumented immigrants living in the state, for which Romney has attacked him. Perry took a lot of heat on the issue after arguing in a debate that those who disagreed with his policy didn’t “have a heart.”
“Mitt Romney stands apart from the others. He’s the only one who’s taken a strong across-the-board position on immigration,” Kobach told The Hill in an interview.
“Gingrich and Perry, with their pro-amnesty positions, are not acceptable on their issues to me or the vast majority of Republicans.”
Kobach also criticized Rick Santorum, another GOP candidate trying to win over conservatives, for voting in 1996 against a pilot program that turned into E-Verify, the national system which helps employers check the immigration status of their employees. But he did praise Santorum for more recently voicing support for the program.
“All of the other candidates stand to the left of Romney on immigration,” Kobach said. “This is an issue that people with weak backbones sometimes have trouble taking a position on, and Mitt Romney has shown some real backbone on this issue.”
There are some risks for Romney.
Democrats are already pointing to problems he could have with Hispanic voters in the general election, and the Democratic National Committee pounced on Kobach’s endorsement of Romney.
Romney is not the only candidate drawing attention to the issue. Santorum on Thursday announced the backing of Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), another anti-immigration hard-liner.
“I am honored to receive Lou’s endorsement today,” Santorum said in a statement.
“Lou has been a national leader on fighting illegal immigration and has been a fighter for the people of northeastern Pennsylvania in Congress.”
GOP strategist Dave Woodard said emphasizing the issue of immigration could help Romney in South Carolina.
The Justice Department stepped in to block South Carolina’s law in late December, angering many in the state and drawing widespread press coverage.
“It’s one of those latent issues. We’ve had a run-in with the Obama administration on this and a candidate could bring it up in his stump speech … and bang, you just inflamed the thing,” said Woodard, also a professor at Clemson.
“The federal government telling us what to do is always a big issue down here.”