A new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of Hispanic registered voters highlights Romney's challenge. Obama led Romney, 66 percent to 25 percent. In 2008 Hispanics voted for Obama over McCain, 67 percent to 31 percent, according to an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center of exit polls.
What's more: a December poll of Republican primary voters by the Pew Research Center suggests Romney could alienate his GOP base if he softens his immigration stands too much. It found that 57 percent of Republican voters 65 and older said tighter border security and tough law enforcement should be the only focus of immigration policy, with no path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Younger Republican voters backed a somewhat more balanced approach, but their turnout is less reliable than older voters'.
Republican strategists note that jobs and the economy are the top issues for Hispanics. And they warn that Hispanic voters, who are citizens and often multi-generation Americans, are not entirely sympathetic to people who enter and stay in the country illegally.
But several top Democrats framed the Arizona case in terms that might touch a broad swath of Hispanic voters and other minorities. These Democrats said the Arizona law — drafted by Republicans, and strongly opposed by Obama — can lead to humiliating stops and police interrogations of non-white citizens.
The Supreme Court rejected provisions of the Arizona law that would have made state crimes out of federal immigration violations. But it upheld the "show me your papers" provision, which requires police to check the status of people stopped for various reasons who might appear to be in the U.S. illegally.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' Immigration Task Force, said: "Experience has shown us that police are highly unlikely to stop an individual with the last name of Kennedy or Roberts on suspicion of not being a legal U.S. citizen, but if you are a Gutierrez or Martinez, watch out."
Romney has said laws such as Arizona's should not lead to racial profiling. He has less than five months to try to eat into Obama's lead among Hispanic voters. He hopes an agenda built around economic opportunity will do the trick. Meanwhile, it's a good bet that he'd be happy if talk about immigration died down.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers national politics for The Associated Press.
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