Desperate to find anything that might change the increasingly unfriendly contours of the US presidential race, Mitt Romney changed tack on immigration policy yesterday, vowing not to revoke special visas authorised by President Barack Obama for young undocumented people brought into the country illegally by their parents.
Mr Romney signalled the shift in an interview with a newspaper in Denver where he and Mr Obama will clash tonight in the first of three presidential debates. The encounter, where the stakes will be especially high for the Republican challenger, is set to focus on domestic issues including immigration as well as the economy and debt.
In a blow to the Republican camp, meanwhile, a judge in Pennsylvania delayed until after November the introduction of a contentious new voter ID law that could have potentially depressed turnout, particularly among likely Democrat supporters, by requiring voters to show government-issued identification, such as a driver's licence, at polling stations.
With his remarks on the special visas introduced under an order issued by Mr Obama this summer, Mr Romney is hoping to cut into the President's advantage among Latino voters that could be decisive in a number of battleground states with fast-growing Latino voter blocs, including Colorado. Hitherto, he has been evasive on the issue, saying only that under a Romney administration it would be superseded by broader reforms.
"People who have received the special visa that the President has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid," he told the Denver Post. "I'm not going to take something that they've purchased." During the primaries, Mr Romney took a hard stance, vowing to adopt policies that would encourage "self-deportation" of undocumented people.
Alienating many in the Latino community, Mr Romney also in one primary debate voiced support for Arizona's controversial law allowing police officers to demand proof from citizens that they are in the country legally. It was soon after that when a top aide caused uproar by suggesting that the candidate could later adjust his positions in the way a child shakes an Etch-A-Sketch toy to draw something new. Just such a moment occurred yesterday.
Stalking today's debate, meanwhile, are memories of the shooting rampage at a screening in July of the latest Batman film in Aurora, just a few miles from Denver University where the two men will meet. Also nearby is Columbine, where two teenagers killed 13 high school students in 1999. Even with this year's tragedy and a later massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, gun control has barely featured in the race so far. But relatives of eight of the 12 who were killed in Aurora have demanded that the issue be raised. Making their pitch in a letter to the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, they said that to "ignore the problem of gun violence where two of the worst shootings in US history took place – Aurora and Columbine – would not only be noticeable by its absence but would slight the memories of our loved ones killed."
Additionally, a survivor of Aurora, Stephen Barton, who was shot in the neck, appears in a national television ad similarly demanding discussion of gun control bankrolled by a group of mayors headed by the New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. It shows him sitting in an empty auditorium arguing that 48,000 Americans will be killed by firearms in the next four years if gun control is not taken seriously by the winner of the race.
"When the candidates walk into that auditorium, I hope they'll be thinking about another theatre a few miles away where a dozen people were murdered, and dozens more were injured like Stephen," Mr Bloomberg said in a statement.
The Obama camp said it was underwhelmed by Mr Romney's promise on the special visas for undocumented youths, noting that he did not say if he would sustain or scrap the initiative.
"Romney's latest immigration pivot raises more questions than it answers," insisted Gabriella Domenzain, who speaks on Hispanic issues for the campaign. "Would he side with his extreme anti-immigration advisers and repeal this measure?"
Introduced by the Republican-controlled state legislature, the voter ID law in Pennsylvania is one of the strictest in the country and has drawn strident criticism not just from the Democratic Party but also from unions, civil rights groups and the American Association of Retired Persons. The controversy has helped Democrats galvanise supporters in the state which, according to current polls, seems likely to fall in Mr Obama's column.
Issuing his ruling, Judge Robert Simpson said that with five weeks until election day, he was concerned that many potential voters would not have enough time to acquire the documents they would need to vote.
TV duel: The hot issues
The economy Romney will say Obama's policies have not worked and unemployment is still too high.
Taxation Obama will argue that Romney's vision of cutting taxes for the rich has not helped America.
National debt Romney has one policy area in which he outscores the President in polls – that he could do a better job of cutting the deficit.
Health Obama will say his health reforms are bringing costs down and ensuring coverage for all. Romney will vow to repeal them.
The great debates: Winners and losers
Rarely do televised debates alone determine an election's result. But they can seal an impression of a candidate in voters' minds. Here are three of the most important.
Kennedy v Nixon
The 1960 debates between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first of their kind. Those who listened on the radio to the first debate considered Nixon the winner. The many more who saw it on TV found the young Democrat more persuasive than his more experienced opponent, a two-term Vice-President. Without the debates, Kennedy might not have won the election.
Ford v Carter
The next debates were not until 1976, between Gerald Ford and his Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. The second, dealing with foreign policy, was an example of a blunder that probably did change a race. Ford's claim that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration", was an especially glaring mistake, coming as it did from an incumbent President. Carter went on to a narrow win in November.
Bush v Kerry
The limited impact of debates was proved in 2004, when George W Bush faced a challenge by the Democrat John Kerry. President Bush had a small advantage in the polls, but Kerry performed strongly in all three debates. Bush won when it mattered most, in November, with 50.7 per cent of the popular vote against Kerry's 48.3 per cent.
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