- Associated Press - Sunday, July 1, 2012

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In New Mexico, Tomasita Maestas says she will pick the presidential candidate who has the best plan to fix education and the economy.

In Arizona, Mexican immigrant Carlos Gomez backs Republican Mitt Romney because he’s more conservative on social issues than his Democratic opponent.

In Miami, Colombia native Luna Lopez probably will vote for President Obama now that he’s decided to halt the deportation of many illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.

The reasons that Hispanics give for choosing between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are just as diverse as the countries that they or their ancestors once called home, suggesting there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to courting the nation’s fastest-growing minority group.

The Latino vote isn’t monolithic or, really, a voting bloc. It includes a range of people with varying opinions. Among them are Republican-leaning Cubans in Florida, new Mexican immigrants and longtime descendants of Spanish settlers in the Southwest, and Democratic-tilting Puerto Ricans in the East.

Immigration policy would seem to be the natural top issue for these voters, except that nearly two-thirds of Hispanics are born in the U.S. Their priorities are the same as the general population — jobs, the economy, education and health care.

“We need to see more jobs here, that’s my No. 1 priority and what I want to hear about,” says Stefan Gonzalez, an almost 18-year-old from Denver, whose heritage includes Spanish, Mexican and Native American roots. Mr. Gonzalez, who works in a suburban Denver pawnshop, says he plans to vote for Mr. Obama this fall.

In Albuquerque, Ernest Gurule, an 84-year-old whose ancestors settled New Mexico in 1580, says his main issue is the federal health care plan upheld by the Supreme Court last week, and that he’ll back Mr. Obama in part because of it. Also, the Democrat, adds: “It’s too expensive to change horses midstream.”

Democrats and Republicans are in a fierce race to figure out how to best reach Hispanics.

In the short term, these voters could decide the outcome in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and elsewhere. The long-term stakes are even bigger because Hispanics are projected to account for roughly 30 percent of the population by 2050, doubling in size and, potentially changing the national political landscape.

Like most minorities, Hispanics traditionally have leaned Democratic. But a recent Pew Research poll indicates that Hispanics also are the fastest-growing group of independent voters, with 46 percent now shunning a party label compared with 31 percent six years ago. Such results only underscore how diverse Hispanics are and the challenges for the political parties.

“It is going to be a very hard fight to win,” says Jennifer Korn, the executive director of the Republican-based Hispanic Leadership Network, which was established to help bring more Hispanic voters to the GOP. “The more they assimilate, the more sophisticated they become and that’s when they start dividing between parties.”

For now at least, Mr. Obama and his Democrats have an advantage, with the latest polls showing 65 percent of Hispanics back Mr. Obama and 25 percent back Mr. Romney.

The Democrats’ campaign has worked to keep that edge, helped by Mr. Obama’s new immigration policy and the Supreme Court’s decision to side with the administration on most of an Arizona law that many immigrants viewed as overly harsh.

Mindful of the diversity among Hispanics, Mr. Obama has custom-tailored his outreach, including tweaking Spanish dialect for different regions.

Mr. Romney has plenty of ground to make up after a bruising primary season filled with tough rhetoric that even Republicans acknowledge turned off many Hispanics. He recently established a Hispanic advisory group that includes top elected Republican Hispanics.

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