STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On a Thursday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Both Mitt Romney and President Obama will address a group known as NALEO. That's the acronym for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Their appearances today and tomorrow come just a week after the president announced a new policy allowing some undocumented young people to stay in the U.S.
As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, both candidates need Latino votes to win.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: 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. And the one side-issue with potentially the greatest electoral consequences is immigration.
Until he announced his latest policy last week, President 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 the group called Latino Decisions.
MATT BARRETO: 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.
LIASSON: President Obama's move also made immigration a big wedge issue for his opponent. Mitt Romney has repeatedly refused to say whether he would continue the president's new policy. Yesterday, the Romney campaign shut down a conference call on the economy after getting three questions about immigration.
And on CNN, Romney's former rival, Rick Santorum, explained Romney's strategy by stating the obvious.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY")
RICK SANTORUM: Well, he's trying to walk a line as not to sound like he is hostile to Latinos.
CANDY CROWLEY: Swing voters.
SANTORUM: And - swing and very important states.
LIASSON: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MITT ROMNEY: The question is: If I were elected and Congress were to pass the DREAM Act, would I veto it? And the answer is yes.
LIASSON: Voters will be hearing that statement a lot this fall. President Obama told a group of Hispanic journalists that he may just run clips from the Republican primaries verbatim.
David Axelrod is the Obama campaign's top strategist.
DAVID AXELROD: Governor Romney has no standing on this issue, on any of these issues, frankly. There's no reason for anyone in that community to see him as someone who's focused on their concerns and interests. He's dug himself in a great, big hole.
LIASSON: In an election that may be decided by turnout among base voters, Romney can't afford to anger anti-amnesty conservatives. But he still needs Hispanic votes, as well.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio - whose own efforts to craft a version of the DREAM Act were preempted by the president's new policy - offered this calculation at a reporters' breakfast sponsored by Bloomberg News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: 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.
LIASSON: States like Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.
In 2008, Mr. 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 Matt Barreto says the president's decision to suspend certain deportations gives him something to work with.
BARRETO: There's something that he can go out and campaign on. It's not just promises or I'll do this next time, I promise. He actually has done something. And if there's a clear contrast there with the other candidate saying, you know, I don't know what I think about that, that's a clear decision for Latinos. And this is certainly a very important personal, symbolic issue.
LIASSON: Marco Rubio doesn't agree that immigration policy is the key to the Hispanic vote.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
RUBIO: I mean 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. They're worried about the future. They're worried about their kids' future. Their house is worth less than it used to be worth.
LIASSON: 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 votes John McCain got four years ago.
ED GILLESPIE: 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. And I believe as a result of that, we're going to see Governor Romney's share of the Latino vote rise from the baseline of Senator McCain's share.
LIASSON: And today in Orlando, when Romney attends NALEO's Latino political convention, he'll have a chance to make that case himself.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.