TEMPE, Ariz. — Republican Mitt Romney turned his focus to the Hispanic vote Friday as he gathered Latino business leaders to discuss the issues he talks about with every other constituency: the economy and jobs.
Romney met with nine Phoenix-area Hispanic business and community leaders and asked them for their views on immigration law, education and the economy — underscoring the importance of the nation's fastest-growing minority group is playing in the general election, particularly in the swing-voting states that are expected to be competitive right up until Election Day.
The general election-focused Romney who came to the Arizona Historical Society Museum on a 100-degree afternoon didn't have much to say about border fences, illegal immigration or his promise to veto the so-called DREAM Act, which would allow some illegal immigrants a path to legal residency. He didn't say much about other issues that dominated the vitriolic and drawn-out Republican primary — and that he's expounded on at length at previous round-tables, town halls and campaign events.
Former University of Arizona President Manuel Pacheco asked Romney to give a "nod" and "some signal for a glimmer of hope" to the students who could potentially gain a change in status if Congress passes legislation helping those who finish college to become citizens. Romney said only: "Thank you. Appreciate it, thank you."
Other participants appealed to Romney for basic "fairness" in the immigration system, and one mentioned a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Romney stuck to asking questions of the participants, not offering extended opening remarks or making statements after participants spoke, as he often has at previous round-table events.
Romney's refocusing comes the same week Obama has launched an advertising effort targeting Hispanics in key swing states in an attempt to keep these Democratic-leaning voters in his own fold.
Before the scheduled round-table discussion with Hispanic business leaders, Romney's campaign circulated a graphic aimed at highlighting the impact of tough economic conditions on Hispanic families.
"The Obama administration has brought hard times to Hispanics in America," the graphic says. "Under President Obama, more Hispanics have struggled to find work than at any other time on record."
Obama's campaign, meanwhile, is spending about $145,000 on broadcast advertising aimed at Hispanics this week, according to data from the media tracking firm SMG Delta. The ads are running in Florida, Colorado and Nevada — all battleground states in the fall campaign.
Obama's campaign accused Romney of lying to Hispanics about the president's record in his push to woo Hispanics. "President Obama believes we should grow our economy and create jobs that reward hard work and responsibility, and we are seeing results," Gabriela Domenzain, Obama's director for Hispanic press, said in a statement.
Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported Obama in the 2008 election.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, was also in Arizona to address state Republican leaders. He spoke as the presumptive nominee and his campaign worked to integrate with the Republican National Committee.
Reading from a list, Romney rattled off the names of his primary challengers and thanked them, saying they "fought hard and well." The list included Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who are still campaigning against him.
Sen. John McCain, the party's 2008 nominee, and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus introduced Romney to the gathering of about 200 people. Priebus told Romney that he wanted to welcome him "in a formal way, to greet a family here."
In his speech to the group, Romney criticized David Axelrod, a top Obama adviser, who on Sunday characterized the election as a choice between and economy that "produces a growing middle class and that gives people a chance to get ahead and their kids a chance to get ahead, and an economy that continues down the road we are on."
Reading the remark as casting Obama's economic record in a bad light, Romney said, "I could not agree more."
Romney also met privately with RNC members who had been loyal supporters during the primary process.
Ahead of his speech, three top Romney advisers spent two days meeting with GOP leaders. The party committee has been laying the groundwork for its voter identification programs as well as for a major outreach program to Hispanic voters as the primary process has ground on.
Romney advisers say the integration between the committee and the campaign is going relatively smoothly, as many Romney advisers have close personal ties to RNC staffers or have worked for the committee before.