Mexican-American Immigrants Protest in Arizona
Mexican-Americans protest in favor of immigration rights in Arizona in 2012. Immigrants there are fighting for the right to obtain driver's licenses. Reuters

An immigration strategy that helped Mitt Romney win the Republican primary likely cost him in the general election, a top adviser admitted in a postmortem.

In audio of a Harvard panel released on Monday morning, a group of top Romney strategists dissect the reasons their candidate fell short. At one point, someone in the audience asks whether the hard-line immigration positions Romney took during the primaries may have damaged his standing among the general electorate.

“I regret that,” campaign chief Matt Rhoades said after a pause.

As the Republican Party seeks lessons from President Obama’s victory, the inability to woo Latino voters has become a recurring theme. Obama built a commanding lead among Hispanic voters, whose surging numbers are reshaping the landscape in a number of states.

Despite softening his rhetoric somewhat during the general election, Romney early on seemed eager to outdo his Republican rivals in denouncing illegal immigration. He said he would not sign the DREAM Act -- a bill that would open a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants and is a priority for immigration advocates -- and advocated a policy of encouraging “self-deportation.” Kris Kobach, the architect of Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, helped the Romney campaign as an immigration adviser.

The decision to adopt a hard line on immigration was influenced in part by the threat posed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rhoades said. Perry quickly ascended to the top of the polls after entering the race, and he appeared to present a formidable challenge to Romney.

So Romney sought to outflank Perry on immigration, one issue where the Texas governor’s conservative bona fides were less than immaculate. During one debate, Perry defended a bill that extended in-state tuition at Texas universities to undocumented immigrants by arguing that, “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they've been brought there through no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart.”

Romney joined the rest of the field in pouncing on the comments, condemning the in-state tuition measure as an amnesty that would attract more illegal immigration. That strategy worked in the primary, but Rhoades said Romney could have prevailed without it.

“In retrospect, I believe that we could have probably just beaten Gov. Perry with the Social Security hit,” Rhoades said, in reference to attacking Perry’s comment that Social Security was a “Ponzi scheme.”