By STEVE PEOPLES and JIM KUHNHENN
ORLANDO, Fla. - No longer a backburner issue, immigration is roiling the presidential contest as President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney seek to court the nation's swelling Hispanic population. The outcome could influence political battle lines and shape American politics for generations.
By week's end, both candidates will address the same Latino political convention in Florida, showcasing contrasting political ideologies at a pivotal time. The Supreme Court is about to render judgment on a get-tough Arizona law, and just last week the Democratic president announced plans to ease deportation rules for some children of illegal immigrants.
With Election Day less than five months away, Hispanic voters are energized and paying close attention, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which hosts this week's convention.
"There's a lot at stake. We're talking about a significant share of the American electorate that could well decide this election," Vargas said. "It's only now that both candidates are turning their attention to the Latino vote."
Indeed, both sides are crafting aggressive strategies to appeal to a demographic that is by no means monolithic but has supported Democrats in recent elections. Some Republicans fear - and Democrats hope - that Obama could capitalize on this moment to help solidify Hispanic voters as predominantly Democratic this fall and for years to come, much as President Lyndon Johnson hardened the black vote for Democrats as he pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The stakes are high not only for states with larger Hispanic populations such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado, but for a growing number of other battlegrounds - Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia, among them - where even a modest shift among Latino voters could be significant. The United States' Latino population surged from about 35 million in 2000 to 50 million in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.
As the presidential candidates head to the Florida convention, Obama is riding a wave of Latino enthusiasm over his decision to allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work. Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants can avoid deportation if they can prove they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED or served in the military.
The new policy could help anywhere from 800,000 young immigrants - the administration's estimate - to the Pew Hispanic Center's estimate of 1.4 million.
The move was politically timely, in the heat of the campaign and with Obama needing to energize a key part of his base of supporters - many of whom had grown disenchanted over the past three years. While the direct beneficiaries of the directive can't vote for Obama, his action has widespread support among American Latinos.
In fact, Obama has long enjoyed support among Hispanics - he won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008.
But he risked losing their enthusiasm, partly because Hispanics have been among the hardest hit by the economic slowdown. Obama also lost some support because he hasn't fulfilled promises of a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system and because his administration has been aggressively deporting illegal immigrants. A December poll by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that 59 percent of Latinos disapproved of the president's handling of deportations.
Obama senior adviser David Axelrod predicts that the president could exceed his 2008 performance with Hispanics this year, noting that his opponent then was Sen. John McCain, who had initially pushed for an overhaul of the immigration system.
Axelrod contends that Romney is "hopelessly twisted up on this issue."
Obama had troubles of his own before the administration announced the recent initiative. Supporters of many illegal immigrants - students as well as workers - had been mounting protests at Obama campaign headquarters this month in places such as Denver and Los Angeles.
The Romney campaign has struggled to offer a consistent response to the president's move. Romney has assailed Obama's "broken promises" on immigration in recent days but has focused on the new policy's temporary status as his prime criticism.
"These people deserve to understand what their status will be long term, not just four and a half months," Romney said on Fox News Radio this week. "And that's why I think it's important for me and for Congress to come together to put together a plan that secures the border, that insists that we have an employment verification system and that deals with the children of those who have come here illegally on a long-term basis, not a stopgap measure."
As is typical, Romney intends to focus on the economy when he faces the Latino convention on Thursday. The former Massachusetts governor argues that his economic credentials would benefit all people who have struggled under Obama's leadership in recent years - women, younger voters and Hispanics among them.
Still, Romney's own immigration policy is unclear as he works to distance himself from harsh conservative rhetoric that was common during the extended GOP primary season earlier in the year.
Facing a Rhode Island audience in April, for example, Romney drew large cheers when he said, "We want people to come here legally. And we like it when they come here speaking English."
He did not support the Obama administration's lawsuit challenging Arizona's hardline immigration law. And he said that he would veto the DREAM Act that would have given legal status to some children of illegal immigrants. Romney has refused so far to say whether he would reverse Obama's new policy that does much the same thing, albeit on a temporary basis.
Even before he announced the new rules, Obama was looking to build his support among Latinos, vastly outspending Romney on Spanish-language television and radio. But Romney has released targeted TV and radio ads in Spanish, including some that feature one of Romney's sons who is a fluent Spanish speaker.
Simon Rosenberg, who follows immigration matters as head of the liberal-leaning group NDN, said the president's move on immigration not only helps him energize Latino voters, it also helps cast him as a president willing to take bold steps.
For a Latino community that worried that neither party was doing enough, "they now have a champion," he said. But, he added, "There will be a resonance beyond the Latino community."
Besides the new immigration initiative, the Obama camp has been using the new health care law to appeal to Hispanic voters, a rare use of the signature Obama measure in the campaign.
An ad campaign this week in Nevada, Colorado and Florida focuses on the benefits of the health care law for Hispanics and features Cristina Saralegui, a popular Spanish-language television personality who endorsed Obama this week. She says in the ad that Obama's health care law guarantees that "the great majority of Hispanics" will have access to doctors and hospitals.
Jim Kuhnhenn reported from Washington.