By Catherine E. Shoichet
(CNN) — Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney stepped up efforts to woo Latino voters Wednesday in a forum broadcast live online by the Spanish-language Univision network.
Student supporters in the audience at the University of Miami cheered as Romney responded in English to Spanish-language questions about immigration, education, health care, jobs and the economy.
“With a father born in Mexico, are you sure you’re not Latino?” co-host Jorge Ramos joked at the forum’s start, apparently referring to controversial comments on a secretly recorded video released this week that showed the Republican candidate saying “it would be helpful to be Latino.”
Romney laughed at the question Wednesday.
“I think for political purposes that might have helped me here at the University of Miami today,” he said, “but as you know my dad was born of American parents who were living in Mexico, and he came back to this country at age 5 or 6…and he recognized that this is the land of opportunity, and he has been the role model and inspiration for my whole life.”
Minutes into the forum, which included questions from moderators and audience members, Ramos and co-host Maria Elena Salinas pressed Romney about his stance on immigration.
“The immigration system I think we all agree is broken and it’s been a political football for years and years…and it needs to be fixed,” Romney said.
He criticized U.S. President Barack Obama for pledging to fix the problem, but not delivering.
“When I’m president, I will actually do what I promise, I will put in place an immigration reform system that resolves this issue,” Romney said.
The Republican candidate offered few specifics about his plan, but he praised previous proposals by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and said he supported offering permanent residency to people who serve in the military.
Asked whether he would deport young illegal immigrants brought to America as children who want to study and work in the country where they grew up, he responded, “I’m not going to be rounding people up and deporting them. We’re going to put in place a permanent solution.”
Romney has struggled in the past to frame his positions on immigration in ways that appeal to Hispanic voters as well as the conservative base of the Republican Party.
Unable to close ground on Obama in the polls, the GOP challenger seeks to woo Hispanic American voters but has found himself hindered by the conservative stance he took on immigration policy to win the Republican primary campaign.
Now, his opposition to Obama’s move this summer to halt deportations of some children of illegal immigrants puts Romney at odds with a majority of Latino voters, especially younger ones in the fastest-growing demographic of the U.S. population.
The ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions weekly tracking poll reported Monday that Obama held a 68%-26% advantage over Romney among Hispanic Americans.
A Gallup poll conducted partially before and partially after the Republican National Convention at the end of August said Obama leads Romney among Latino registered voters 64%-27%.
Asked to directly address Hispanic voters at the end of Wednesday’s forum, Romney focused on economic issues, which polls have indicated are a top priority for Latinos.
Romney noted that he was concerned about high unemployment and that “so many Hispanic-Americans drop out of high school.”
“The president’s policies, I think, while well intended, haven’t done the job that needs to be done,” he said. “I understand what it takes to create jobs.”
Wednesday’s forum, co-sponsored by Facebook, was broadcast live online in Spanish and English and was scheduled to air on Univision later Wednesday night.
Obama is scheduled to appear in another “Meet the Candidates” forum hosted by Univision on Thursday.
The events come several weeks after Ramos criticized the Commission on Presidential Debates for not picking a Latino debate moderator.
“I think that they should have noticed that this country is changing very rapidly,” Ramos told CNN in August. “Minorities, for instance, surpass whites in U.S. births, and those changes simply are not reflected. I really can’t believe why they didn’t choose a member of a minority group to be part of at least one debate, and I really can’t understand why (the commission didn’t pick) a journalist from the fastest (growing) voting block in the country, the Latinos.”
The bipartisan commission that organizes presidential debates announced the moderators last month.
PBS’ Jim Lehrer will host the first debate on October 3 in Denver. Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent and host of “State of the Union,” will host the second debate on October 16 in Hempsted, New York, at Hoftsra University. And CBS’ Bob Schieffer will host an October 22 debate in Boca Raton, Florida.
CNN’s Tom Cohen and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.
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