Reporting from Albuquerque — With the election still 13 months away, President Obama is already making an all-out push to rebuild his popularity with Latinos, which has been diminished by the weak economy and a lack of progress toward revamping the nation's immigration system.
Campaign aides are phoning Latino voters in swing states including here in New Mexico to explain the president's record and recruit volunteers. Democrats are airing Spanish-language ads promoting Obama's agenda; one released in Denver last week accused Republicans of wanting to "politically hurt President Obama" rather than create jobs.
In Albuquerque, volunteers in Obama's campaign office have faced some resistance as they place calls to Latino voters.
"The excitement isn't there like it was," said Ana Canales, a volunteer and the county Democratic Party chairwoman. "There are a lot of people who are saying, 'We're not going to vote.' We have a lot of work on our hands … to make sure those Latinos understand that he [Obama] is working for us."
Obama's courtship of the Latino vote sets up a distinct contrast with Republican presidential candidates. Wooing the conservative voters who dominate GOP primaries, Republican candidates have been willing to risk alienating Latino citizens by taking a strict stand against illegal immigrants, most of whom are from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
In a speech Saturday, Herman Cain suggested he would be willing to use lethal force and an electrified fence that "will kill you" to stop illegal border crossings — although on Sunday, he said the remark was "a joke."
Mitt Romney, in a debate in Orlando, Fla., last month, criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry for extending in-state tuition benefits to undocumented students, referring to them with the term "illegal alien," which some prominent Latinos criticized. Both the tough tone and the use of the term continued in Tuesday's debate in Las Vegas.
"People aren't illegal, and they're not aliens. Aliens are what my 10-year-old son watches on 'Transformers,' " said New Mexico state Sen. Linda M. Lopez, a Democrat.
With Republicans hewing to the right on immigration, it seems doubtful most Latinos will abandon Obama. But Republicans do not need a majority of the Latino vote. They just need to cut the Democratic margin.
Obama needs both an overwhelming edge among Latino voters and a heavy turnout. If enough disenchanted Latinos stay home on election day, that could destroy Obama's prospects in crucial swing states: Nevada, Florida and Colorado top the list.
Over the last two years, Obama's Latino support has slipped and he is vulnerable on the two issues polls show are most important to Latinos: the economy and immigration.
Latino unemployment stands at 11.3% — more than 2 percentage points above the national average. Of 51 million Latinos in the U.S., nearly a quarter live in poverty, compared with 15% for the nation as a whole.
On immigration, Obama promised in 2008 to push for a comprehensive solution that would offer a path to legal status for the estimated 10 million living here illegally. It never happened. Obama focused instead on healthcare, and the deadline passed. Now, with Republicans controlling the House, a sweeping solution seems years away.
With Congress deadlocked on rewriting the nation's immigration laws, Obama has taken steps on his own to give some illegal immigrants a better shot at avoiding deportation. In August, Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, announced that the administration would review about 300,000 pending deportation cases to focus their efforts on felons and "public safety threats."
By contrast, people facing deportation who are elderly, crime victims or had lived in the U.S. since childhood would be considered low priority and might be allowed to stay.
That news angered Republican lawmakers, who say Obama is sidestepping Congress to bestow "amnesty" on people living in the U.S. illegally. White House officials counter that under Obama, the government has consistently deported more people than under George W. Bush's administration. On Tuesday, officials announced that in the year ending Sept. 30, a record 396,906 people had been deported, more than half of whom had criminal convictions.
Meeting with Latino journalists last month in the White House, Obama was on the defensive, objecting to the idea that he should go further on his own, without Congress. "The notion that somehow, by myself, I can go and do these things — it's just not true," he said.
The answer left some deflated.
"When he stands up in front of a Latino audience and says, 'Don't expect me to be powerful,' OK; no wonder people are saying, 'Why should we get excited about the dude?' " said Frank Sharry, founder of America's Voice, a pro-immigration group.