CNN's Soledad O'Brien tried to make race an issue on Tuesday where there was no conflict to begin with, and she continued thumping Republicans over immigration on Wednesday. O'Brien asked candidate Mitt Romney if he was simply driving Latino voters to Obama with his immigration stance, and brought up the issue again in a later interview.
In her interview with Romney, O'Brien cited his opposition to the Dream Act and noted the large Latino voting bloc in Florida, the site of an upcoming GOP primary. "You know immigration is a big issue for Latino voters. When you tackle that, when you say something like that very publicly and very strongly, are you essentially handing those voters off to President Obama?" she pressed the candidate.
That wasn't O'Brien's only loaded question about the critical state of Republicans in the general election. She later suggested to RNC chairman Reince Priebus that the "divide" between social and economic conservatives would ruin the Republican Party.
"You see a lot of split and you really see a divide that I would say is basically between people who are economically conservative and people who are socially conservative," O'Brien lectured Priebus before asking "isn't that ultimately potentially going to tear apart the GOP?" Of course, she cited no specific evidence for her assumption.
And later O'Brien returned to Romney's immigration question, asking Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) if Romney's immigration stance wouldn't hurt in states with large Latino constituencies.
O'Brien asked "is this potentially going to be a problem for him, not only in the state of Florida, but in any state that has a large Latino population, given that Latinos obviously care about the economy, too? They care about bringing education, all those things, but also, polls show very clearly care about immigration. It is important."
A transcript of the segments, which aired on January 4 beginning at 7:49 a.m. EST, is as follows:
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: I want to ask you a question. Everybody's looking at New Hampshire and, of course, they're looking at South Carolina. But I want to look at Florida. And of course, in Florida, you have a large number of Latino voters. And you've been very clear that, given the opportunity, you will veto the Dream Act. You know immigration is a big issue for Latino voters. When you tackle that, when you say something like that very publicly and very strongly, are you essentially handing those voters off to President Obama?
MITT ROMNEY: You know, the Hispanic-American voters that I speak with are overwhelmingly concerned with opportunity. They want good jobs in America and rising incomes. And if they want a president who is going to talk to them about a handout or more benefits for free, they got that guy. If they instead, want a president who understands the economy, who has lived in the economy and understands what it takes to help people get jobs, again, then I'm that person. And I think that's going to be the issue that is deciding the 2012 election.
The idea of enforcing our immigration laws, I think people, whether they're Hispanic or non-Hispanic, I think people agree that we ought to enforce the immigration laws, in part, to secure legal immigration as an important pathway to the future of this country. I like legal immigration. I want more legal immigration. But illegal immigration has to be stopped to make legal immigration possible.
O'BRIEN: But the facts also are that after a tough battle in Iowa you have three people who move forward. You see a lot of split and you really see a divide that I would say is basically between people who are economically conservative and people who are socially conservative and isn't that ultimately, potentially going to tear apart – let me finish my question – isn't that ultimately potentially going to tear apart the GOP? Why not?
O'BRIEN: Congressman Ros-Lehtman, and I know you told me oh, the mainstream media always goes back to immigration. So I can feel you rolling your eyes already as I ask this question, but I have to because it is Florida. And Florida, the 22 percent Latino population, it's grown 57 percent over the last decade. And it is Mitt Romney who says, I will veto the Dream Act. And he has moved very strongly, come up – is this potentially going to be a problem for him, not only in the state of Florida, but in any state that has a large Latino population, given that Latinos obviously care about the economy, too. They care about bringing education, all those things, but also, polls show very clearly care about immigration. It is important.
Rep. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R-Fla.): Well, I agree. Immigration is an important topic. I disagree with Governor Romney with his position on the Dream Act. However, I don't think that immigration is the overriding concern of Floridians or especially of Hispanics who live in Florida. They are concerned about this terrible, stagnant Obama economy where we had no job growth. Hispanic families are like every family. They worry about the future for their children. Whether we have a good education system. Do we have jobs that are waiting for them once they graduate from college or graduate from high school?
And I think Romney's pro-growth, pro-small business, less taxes message resonates with the Hispanic voter. It is not, really, the truth that Hispanics only care about immigration, and a Romney victory –
O'BRIEN: No, and I didn't say that. I didn't say "only." But I said "care."
ROS-LEHTINEN: – on January 31st will prove that this is not – well, no, I'm not saying that you did. I apologize for that. But we will find out when Mitt Romney comes out on top that Hispanic voters in the GOP, especially, care so much about the economy and they want to make sure that President Obama is a one-term president. We may disagree, Mitt Romney and I, on a host of issues. But for me, defeating President Obama, making sure he's a one-term president and getting the economy back on track with a Mitt Romney pro-small business growth plan – that's what I think is the overriding factor for many of the Latino voters who will go out in the GOP primary January 31.
O'BRIEN: Alright, so let's talk about what they talked about. I get the congresswoman's point, alright, which is people think Latinos and all of a sudden it's immigration, immigration, immigration. As a Cuban-American, I totally get that. But when you poll Latinos, immigration is higher than people who are non-Latino.
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN contributor: Well here's the thing. If you look at President Obama's approval rating among Hispanics it is down significantly from the 67 percent of the vote he won among them in 2008. That is the opportunity that the congresswoman is talking about. You think about jobs, the collapse of housing values, this overall economy has hit African-American and Hispanic communities especially hard. So that is reflected in his declining approval rating.
When you do the early matchups of him against the Republicans, like Mitt Romney, his vote share goes back up toward where he was in 2008.
O'BRIEN: So it's not going over to –
BROWNSTEIN: It's not. Because immigration may not be the most important issue for Latino voters, but it is a threshold issue. And if Republicans discuss it in the way that many have been in the primary, it goes beyond the specifics and kind of threatens to suggest a lack of respect for the community.