LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Unwilling to promise the kind of immigration overhaul many Hispanics want, Mitt Romney urged an unenthusiastic crowd of Latino elected officials Thursday to look closely at his plans to boost job creation in their embattled communities.
Romney spoke in softer tones about immigration than many Republicans did during their bruising presidential primary battles. Some analysts said it was a clear sign that the GOP is trying to back off harsh rhetoric that polls suggest would cost it support from Latino voters.
Still, Romney often made his pitch in broad brushstrokes -- lower taxes, less regulation, cuts in government spending -- that could be aimed at any audience.
"We know our businesses can't succeed, grow and hire more workers without a more competitive tax code," he said.
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"That's why I will lower our corporate tax rate and reduce individual marginal rates by 20 percent across the board," he said. "We also know that our businesses and families need affordable and reliable energy. Producing more of our energy resources will create jobs in America and generate greater revenues for America. It will also help bring manufacturing back to our shores."
Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, faced a tough crowd at the annual convention of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. About one-sixth of the seats were empty when he spoke, and he received light applause. President Barack Obama, who got more than two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008 and remains overwhelmingly popular among Hispanics, is to appear today.
Romney tried hard to draw a sharp contrast.
"Tomorrow, President Obama will speak here for the first time since his last campaign. He may admit that he hasn't kept every promise," the Republican said. "And he'll probably say that even though you aren't better off today than you were four years ago, things could be worse.
"He'll imply that you really don't have an alternative. He's taking your vote for granted," Romney said. "You do have an alternative. Your vote should be respected."
Romney, whom some in the Latino community have criticized for his tough stand on illegal immigration, badly needs to chip away at Obama's lead among Hispanics. Their votes are a growing share in presidential elections. Nationally, Hispanics in 2012 are expected to account for 8.7 percent of the vote, up from 7.4 percent in 2008, 6 percent in 2004 and 5.3 percent in 2000. And their growing voice could prove decisive in the swing states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.
Some thought the Romney message will resonate. "To say Hispanics only care about one issue, immigration, is insulting," said Nelson Diaz, a Miami attorney and Romney backer.
Obed Escontrias, an alderman from Presidio, said that while he has an open mind, "we forget who got us into this economic mess," notably the Republican George W. Bush administration.
'A lot of fantasy here'
Democrats saw little hope from Romney. "It's a good thing we're in Disney World, the land of fantasy," said Trey Martinez Fischer, a Texas state representative from San Antonio. "We have a lot of fantasy here today."
But to Romney backer Julius Menendez, vice chairman of the school board in Osceola County, Fla., the immigration debate is not properly focused. "Republicans overemphasize the illegal component. It makes the party look anti-Hispanic. We should talk about what's broken in the legal immigration system," he said.
Romney did just that Thursday and invoked the memory of his late father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, whose family came to this country from Mexico.
"As president, I will stand for a path to legal status for anyone who is willing to stand up and defend this great nation through military service," Mitt Romney said.
"Those who have risked their lives in defense of America have earned the right to make their life in America."