Audience members listen to President Obama speak about immigration reform at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas, on May 10, 2011. Both Obama and Republican Mitt Romney see garnering Latino votes as critical to winning the fall election.
President Obama and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney are taking their stump speeches to a prominent group of elected Latino officials this week.
Romney will address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, Thursday. Obama takes his turn Friday.
The appearances come just a week after the president announced a new policy allowing some undocumented young people to stay in the U.S. Romney has stayed away from denouncing the move. Both candidates see garnering Latino votes as critical to winning.
The economy is still the one and only main event of the presidential election, but there are some important sideshows: contraception, gay marriage, health care. The one side issue with potentially the greatest electoral consequences is immigration.
The 'Enthusiasm Measure'
Until he announced his immigration policy last week, Obama had the support of most Hispanic voters — but not the enthusiasm they had shown for him in 2008. That may be changing in part because of the decision not to deport young immigrants whose undocumented parents brought them here as children.
Matt Barreto has just conducted a new survey for Latino Decisions, a political opinion research group.
"Obama went from a 19-point deficit on an enthusiasm measure to a plus-35, and that's over [a] 50-point turnaround, just through this single announcement," Barreto says.
Obama's move also made immigration a big wedge issue for his opponent. Romney has repeatedly refused to say whether he would continue the president's policy. On Wednesday, the Romney campaign shut down a conference call on the economy after getting three questions about immigration.
"He is trying to walk a line as not to sound like he is hostile to Latinos," Rick Santorum, Romney's former rival for the GOP presidential nomination, said on CNN.
Romney's Balancing Act
The problem for Romney is that the president's new policy is very popular with independent voters and Hispanics, but it's extremely unpopular with many Republican base voters who consider it a form of amnesty. During the primaries, Romney himself condemned a similar policy known as the DREAM Act.
"The question is, if I were elected and Congress were to pass the DREAM Act, would I veto it?' And the answer is yes," Romney said at a campaign stop late last year.
Voters will be hearing that statement a lot this fall. Obama told a group of Hispanic journalists that he may just run clips from the Republican primaries verbatim.
"Gov. Romney has no standing on this issue, on any of these issues, frankly," says David Axelrod, the Obama campaign's top political strategist. "There's no reason for anyone in that community to see him as focused on their concerns and interests. He has dug himself in a great big hole."
In an election that may be decided by turnout among base voters, Romney can't afford to anger anti-amnesty conservatives. He still needs Hispanic votes, though.
"Of all the 10 or 12 states that are theoretically in play, all of them have enough of a Hispanic population — for the most part — that could make a difference in a very close election," said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose own efforts to craft a version of the DREAM Act were pre-empted by the president's new policy, at a reporters' breakfast sponsored by Bloomberg News.
Rubio was referring to swing states with strong Hispanic populations such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.
Is Immigration The Key?
In 2008, Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote. Polls show he's still getting the same share of that vote, but with his support among white voters sagging, he will need to register more Latinos and get them to the polls.
That will be tough. Latino registration has declined since 2008, but Barreto says the president's decision to suspend certain deportations gives him something to work with.
"There's something he can go out and campaign on. It's not just promises or 'I'll do this next time.' He actually has done something," Barreto says, "and if there's a clear contrast there, with the other candidate saying, 'I don't know how I think about that,' that's a clear decision for Latinos. This is an important personal symbolic issue."
Rubio says he doesn't agree that immigration policy is the key to the Hispanic vote.
"This idea that Hispanics, all they think about is immigration 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is just not true. I mean, they're like everybody else in the country," he says. "They're worried about the future. They're worried about their kids' future. Their house is worth less than it used to be worth."
Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, thinks there's a way Republicans can do better than the 31 percent of the Hispanic vote Sen. John McCain of Arizona got when he ran for president in 2008.
"I believe a pro-legal immigration message, a pro-economic growth, a pro-job creation message, a pro-education reform message will be very resonant with Americans of Hispanic descent," Gillespie says. "I believe as a result of that, we're going to see Gov. Romney's share of the Latino vote rise from the baseline of Sen. McCain's share."
When Romney attends NALEO's political convention in Orlando, Fla., Thursday, he'll have a chance to make that case himself.