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MICHELE NORRIS, host: Job creation, President Obama and health care are the big topics these days for the Republican presidential candidates, but another lingers just below the surface of the current campaign: immigration. And as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, Texas Governor Rick Perry, a favorite of conservatives overall, is taking criticism for being too moderate on the issue.

DON GONYEA: Wherever he goes, Rick Perry proudly waves the flag of conservatism. This is a common self introduction.

Governor RICK PERRY: And I simply want to get America working again and make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.

GONYEA: But on immigration, Perry is under fire. The reason? In 2001, his first full year in office, he signed legislation that grants in-state tuition rates at Texas colleges and universities to some illegal immigrants. He was forced to defend that move at last week's CNN/Tea Party-sponsored debate in Tampa.

PERRY: And if you are working and pursuing citizenship in the state of Texas, you pay in-state tuition there. And the bottom line is it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way, no matter...

GONYEA: Perry's answer prompted boos from Tea Party activists in the audience. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann compared Perry's Texas immigration policy to the federal DREAM Act, which is supported by the White House. That proposal would provide a path to legal U.S. residency for people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors and who met certain conditions. And there was this from former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

Senator RICK SANTORUM: Well, I mean, what Governor Perry's done is he provided in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. Maybe that was an attempt to attract the illegal vote - I mean, the Latino voters.

GONYEA: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is considered the moderate among the top-tier GOP contenders, has also joined in the attack. While Perry does call for a much stronger federal presence patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, he opposes building a wall. Romney calls for a high-tech fence to be built, adding...

MITT ROMNEY: As governor, I vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition breaks to illegal immigrants, and I strengthened the authority of our state troopers to enforce existing immigration laws.

GONYEA: Among Latino voters, Democrats enjoy a tremendous edge. Mindful of that, the independent group American Crossroads, founded by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, has run Spanish-language ads that keep the focus solely on President Obama and the economy.

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GONYEA: The message is about the impact the bad economy and the president's policies have had on Latino families. Such ads are a recognition that tough talk on immigration now can hurt the GOP nominee come the general election. But Matt Barreto, a Latino political analyst at the University of Washington, says even a focused economic message is a very tough sell for Republicans with this group of voters.

MATT BARRETO: When we ask in our polling, we find consistently that Latino voters tell us that they trust Obama and the Democrats at much higher rates, almost 3-1, than they do Republicans on fixing the economy. When we go back to the Bush tax cuts, which President Obama extended, we found that Latino voters said they should have let them expire.

GONYEA: But Roberto Suro of the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California says the GOP goal is to discourage Latino voters who once supported President Obama. He says they may not vote Republican, but you might get them to stay home.

ROBERTO SURO: If you can move a fairly small percentage of Latino voters in the right places, you can have a big difference in the Electoral College outcomes.

GONYEA: He says look at New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, all states that President Obama carried in '08, but also places where President Bush won four years earlier. Each has a big Latino population. If President Obama's total among those voters falls off significantly, then that could be the difference between winning re-election or not. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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