- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2011

LAS VEGAS — A year before the 2012 presidential election, Hispanic voters are facing a choice.

They can continue to support President Obama, despite being hurt disproportionately by the economic downturn, or turn to Republicans at a time when many GOP presidential hopefuls have taken a hard line on immigration.

Mr. Obama kicks off a three-day trip to Western states with a stop Monday in Las Vegas, where he wants to rally support for his jobs agenda in Congress. Nevada has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, 13.4 percent.

The trip comes as Republican candidates have taken a more strident tone on immigration.

Former corporate executive Herman Cain recently suggested electrifying a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico to kill illegal immigrants; he later called the remark a joke and apologized. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has raised the issue of “anchor babies,” or U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants; it’s a term that some people find offensive.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been criticized by opponents for signing a law allowing some illegal immigrants to get reduced rates on in-state college tuition. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said most of the jobs created under Mr. Perry’s watch went to illegal immigrants. Mr. Perry lashed into Mr. Romney during last week’s GOP debate in Las Vegas for hiring a lawn care company that he said employed illegal immigrants.

Mr. Obama won 67 percent of Hispanic voters in 2008, but many of those voters have become disillusioned during the past three years. Unemployment among Hispanics tops 11 percent, and many Hispanics are losing their homes. Others criticize the number of deportations under Mr. Obama’s presidency and the lack of progress on a comprehensive immigration plan.

“I am willing to support him, but I would like him to keep his word on all the promises he made,” said Marcos Mata, 17, a Las Vegas high school senior who will vote for the first time next year. “Not just on immigration. But I don’t know if I see any improvement. The jobs act, it’s a good idea, but he should have been doing that a long time ago.”

Recent Gallup polling showed Mr. Obama with a 49 percent job-approval rating among Hispanics, compared with about 60 percent in the beginning of 2011. Hispanic voters could prove pivotal next year, especially in fast-growing and contested states such as Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado.

Mr. Obama has said his jobs agenda would help Hispanics in the construction industry and provide tax breaks for small businesses. On immigration, he has targeted violent criminals for deportation and urged Congress to create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Mr. Obama also has sought support for legislation that would provide a route to legal status for college students and members of the military brought to the country as children.

Republicans sense an opening and have courted Hispanic voters through Spanish-language radio and television ads, criticizing Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy.

Crossroads GPS, a Republican political organization tied to strategist Karl Rove, ran a Spanish-language ad in five states last summer called “Despertarse,” or “Wake up,” depicting a young mother pacing in her home early in the morning, worried about the economy and her children.

President George W. Bush was supported by 44 percent of Hispanic voters in 2004, but that level slipped for the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Party officials promote the success of prominent Hispanic Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, but some worry that a harsh tone on immigration could undermine their efforts.

“The fundamental question will be whether the economic concerns of the Latino community are so severe that they are less critical of anti-immigrant positioning by the Republican party,” said Adam Mendelsohn, a Republican strategist and former adviser to ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

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