Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, pictured in Jackson, Miss., in… (Rogelio V. Solis / Associated…)
The Obama administration's announcement of a halt to deportation for young illegal immigrants sharpens a contrast on a major issue for Latino voters, an essential part of the president's coalition if he is to win a second term.
And it comes as some Republican leaders have expressed concern about the party's standing with the burgeoning electoral force, a particular concern given presidential standard-bearer Mitt Romney's hard-line stance on illegal immigration.
On Friday morning, before news broke of the administration's policy change, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said it was essential for Republicans to improve their appeal among Latinos.
"The Latino vote makes a difference and can make the difference in a number of critical states. And so from a purely political perspective sure we have to improve," Barbour told reporters at a breakfast gathering hosted by the Christian Science Monitor on Friday.
Barbour expressed support for a proposal Rick Perry advocated during the Republican primaries -- to allow undocumented workers who have otherwise respected U.S. laws and paid taxes to apply for two-year worker permits but not have a separate path to citizenship.
"We need a secure border for lots of reasons. And then we need to recognize we're not going to deport 12 million people. We shouldn't," he said.
In Republican debates, Romney blasted Perry as well as Newt Gingrich for advocating a policy he said amounted to amnesty.
Romney's campaign has said he opposes amnesty, opposes in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants, and wants to put in place a strong employer-verification system with penalties for companies that hire illegal immigrants.
In one debate, he called for "self-deportation" in the event illegal immigrants could not find work because of such a policy, saying, "We're not going to round them up."
Barbour said he would have a "different policy" than what Romney has proposed. But he also said he does not think Romney is as "hard-over" as Democrats will portray him in the fall.
One area Democrats have focused on is Romney's statement that he would veto the so-called Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the GOP's most prominent Latino officeholders and a potential vice presidential selection, is working on his own version, one that Romney has only said he was studying.
Rubio reacted to the Obama administration's decision by saying it was "welcome news for many of these kids desperate for an answer, but it is a short term answer to a long term problem."
Earlier this week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters at a Bloomberg breakfast event that Romney needs to "have a broader message and have a more intense message" on immigration.
"He needs to broaden the message out when talking about immigration, to make it an economic issue as much as it is a question of the rule of law,” Bush said.
Romney was effective in the Republican primaries, Bush added, in connecting "with a group of voters that were quite angry," but that now he's in "somewhat of a box."
"So I think the broader message is how you get out of it."