LAS VEGAS (AP) — A year before the 2012 presidential election, Hispanic voters are facing a choice.
They can continue to support President Barack 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.
Obama kicked off a three-day trip to Western states with a stop Monday in Las Vegas, where he was promoting 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.
Businessman 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. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann 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 in-state college tuition. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said most of the jobs created under Perry's watch went to illegal immigrants. Perry lashed into Romney during last week's GOP debate in Las Vegas for hiring a lawn care company that employed illegal immigrants.
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 Latinos are losing their homes. Others criticize the number of deportations under 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 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.
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.
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 Obama's handling of the economy.
Crossroads GPS, a Republican political organization tied to strategist Karl Rove, was running a Spanish-language ad in Nevada called "Despertarse," or "Wake up," depicting a young mother pacing her home early in the morning, worried about the economy and her children. The ad was running on Spanish-language television on Monday and Tuesday, surrounding the president's visit.
President George W. Bush was supported by 44 percent of Hispanic voters in 2004 but that level slipped for the 2008 GOP nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Party officials promote the success of prominent Hispanic Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, 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.
Mendelsohn warned that Romney could damage his general election prospects if he makes immigration a focal point during the primary. "If the conventional wisdom is that Romney won the nomination because he beat up Perry on immigration, that's a narrative that will alienate Latinos."
Voters like Jose Hernandez, a Republican, are watching closely. Hernandez said his Las Vegas real estate business has faltered with the housing market. Most of his neighbors and clients are more concerned about the economy than immigration but he has found the tone of the GOP debate offensive, including comments about illegal immigrants stealing jobs.
"That's just ignorance," Hernandez said. "The Republicans need to talk about making it easier for people to come here."
Democrats say the immigration rhetoric in the GOP debates could have a similar impact that tough anti-immigration laws had in California during the 1990s under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. Democratic presidential nominees have not lost California since 1988.
Obama's campaign is aggressively courting Latino voters.
In Fort Collins, Colo., on Saturday, about a dozen volunteers walked door to door to register voters and hand out pamphlets. "If we turn out 15,000 to 20,000 votes, that's going to make a big difference," said Joe Perez, 67, of Greeley, Colo.
Turnout will be key. Many Hispanic Democrats say the Republican debate on immigration has turned off Latino voters but worry that a weak economy could make it more difficult to encourage Hispanics to support Obama.
"Building the excitement and the enthusiasm to go to the polls, that's something we're going to have to figure out how to do," said Maria Elena Durazo, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "They just feel down. The economy is terrible so our challenge is still going to be getting them to the polls. I think we can do it."
Thomas reported from Fort Collins, Colo.