A few weeks ago, Mitt Romney’s campaign launched an attack ad, going after Rick Perry for a Texas policy that offers in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants. It was an ugly, borderline-racist commercial, intended to exploit right-wing animus towards Latino immigrants. I noted at the time that Romney appears to be hoping that these voters have short memories and will forget about his divisive antics by Election Day 2012.

Of course, the larger issue goes well beyond one obnoxious ad. Given the extent to which Republican presidential hopefuls are appealing to anti-immigrant voters, the Latino community isn’t exactly being made to feel welcome in the GOP.

Today, Republican candidates are competing over who can talk the toughest about illegal immigration — who will erect the most impenetrable border defense; who will turn off “magnets” like college tuition benefits.

But after such pointed proposals heated up yet another Republican debate, on Tuesday night, some party officials see a yellow light signaling danger in battleground states with large Hispanic populations in November 2012. Will Hispanic voters remember and punish the eventual Republican nominee?

“The discussion of creating electrified fences from sea to sea is neither prudent nor helpful,” said Ryan Call, chairman of the Republican Party of Colorado, where Hispanics cast 13 percent of votes in 2008 and helped President Obama flip the state to blue. “They’re throwing red meat around in an attempt to mollify a particular aspect of the Republican base.”

Well, yes, of course they are. This isn’t a diverse party; it’s an overwhelmingly white, far-right party. There’s a very good reason Perry’s support plummeted the moment Republican voters heard about his support for Texas’ in-state tuition policy.

But the effect of this intra-party competition — candidates trying to out-do one another in a contest of who hates immigrants more — is equally obvious. Latino voters are likely to notice, and will be that much less inclined to vote Republican in 2012. Many in the community may be open to GOP outreach, but not if the party continues to use Latino immigrants as punching bags.

Lionel Sosa, a Texas strategist who advised George W. Bush John McCain on appealing to Hispanics, told the NYT, “[Romney] can make as many trips to Florida and New Mexico and Colorado and other swing states that have a large Latino population, but he can write off the Latino vote. He’s not going to gain it again.”

Given the size of the Latino population, that’s writing off a huge chunk of the American electorate.

GOP strategist Mike Murphy recently added, “In the short term, it’s a great wedge issue for Mitt Romney to beat up Rick Perry with in the primary. In the longer term, it’s a great wedge issue for President Obama to beat up the Republican nominee with. So it’s one of these things where the short-term interest and the long-term interest are in conflict.”

Romney very likely thinks he can turn on a dime after nailing down the nomination. After all, he’s done it before on every issue under the sun. But counting on millions of voters to simply forget the ugly tactics he used to win the party’s nod is a risky proposition.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.