Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is distancing himself from the author of some of the toughest anti-immigration laws in the country, Kris Kobach, the first in what is expected to be a series of moves aimed at winning over crucial Latino voters.

Politico reported today that Kobach, responsible for the tough anti-immigration legislation in Arizona and other states, has been demoted from Romney's "adviser" on immigration policy to a "supporter".

Romney highlighted the role of Kobach in his campaign during the Republican primaries in states such as South Carolina, where there is a strong anti-immigrant feeling. But with the primaries all but over, Romney is beginning to pivot toward a position more sympathetic to Latinos.

Polls consistently show Barack Obama enjoying a two-to-one advantage over Romney among Latinos, a huge majority that could be the determining factor in the White House election. Romney, speaking at a fundraiser at the weekend, admitted his campaign was doomed if he could not win over Latinos.

Politico asked Romney's campaign headquarters in Boston if Kobach was still an adviser. A Romney spokesperson emailed back to say he was "a supporter".

Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, labelled this as evidence of Romney offering one set of views to Republicans for the primaries and caucuses and another for the general electorate.

Axelrod tweeted: "Etch-a-Sketch moment. After telling donors he's 'doomed' unless he picks up with Latinos, Mitt puts kibosh on Kobach."

The change in status came as news to Kobach. He told ThinkProgress that he continued to provide advice on immigration policy.

Kobach, 45, a former constitutional law professor, is at present secretary of state for Kansas. He co-authored anti-illegal immigration policies not only in Arizona but Alabama, Missouri and Oklahoma, and he has given advice to other states. These policies have resulted in confrontations between the Obama administration and Arizona and other states which have introduced hardline immigration policies. The constitutionality of the issue is to be tested in the US supreme court next week.

In February, Kobach told the Guardian that Romney had discussed imposing a nationwide crackdown on illegal immigrants if he were elected president. Kobach estimated that within the first four years of a new Republican presidency, as many as half of the current pool of undocumented immigrants – some 5.5 million people – could be made to flee by much more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws.

Romney first employed Kobach as an adviser on immigration in his failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination. Romney has not directly described Kobach as an adviser, but he was effusive in January welcoming his endorsement.

"We need more conservative leaders like Kris willing to stand up for the rule of law," Romney said at the time. "With Kris on the team, I look forward to working with him to take forceful steps to curtail illegal immigration and to support states like South Carolina and Arizona that are stepping forward to address this problem."

Kobach has repeatedly described himself as an adviser to the campaign.

Romney could help himself with Latinos by choosing someone such as Florida senator Marco Rubio as his vice-presidential running mate or proposing a Republican version of the Dream Act that would offer a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

There is disappointment among many Latinos with Obama over his failure to tackle immigration issue as he promised in the 2008 campaign. But so far, misgivings about him among Latinos have been overriden by the hostile rhetoric toward immigrants from Romney and other Republican candidates during the primaries and caucuses. © Guardian News and Media 2012