President Obama has built an overwhelming lead among Latino voters, a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of Hispanics finds, as Republican challenger Mitt Romney faces a difficult path ahead to make inroads among what has been the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group for a generation.
The president leads Romney 66 percent-25 percent among more than 1,000 Latino registered voters surveyed April 16 to May 31, matching his muscular showing in the 2008 election among Hispanics. Romney is in the weakest position among Latinos of any presidential contender since 1996 -- and in those intervening 16 years their percentage of the electorate has doubled.
Since the poll was taken, Obama has fortified Hispanic enthusiasm by announcing he would block the deportation of an estimated 800,000 undocumented young Latinos who were brought to the United States as children. In a subsequent USA TODAY/Gallup survey, taken Wednesday-Saturday, more than eight in 10 Latinos approved of the president's action, most of them strongly.
"I've seen that affect a lot of families, so that's actually something I'm pretty much in favor of," says Jonny Rozyla, 22, a college student from Anoka, Minn., a poll respondent who was interviewed by phone. His mother was born in the United States and his father emigrated from Mexico. Rozyla says he "strongly disagrees" with Romney's statements about a controversial Arizona immigration law. "I don't think he's for the people, mostly," he says of Romney. "He's more for the rich than the poor."
Romney's troubles with Hispanic voters are likely to be spotlighted this week if the Supreme Court, as expected, rules on the constitutionality of the Arizona law, which requires police to check a person's immigration status when there is reasonable doubt about it.
During the Republican primaries, Romney endorsed the right of Arizona and other states to pass laws on immigration. And in recent days, he has sidestepped questions about whether he would overturn Obama's action blocking some deportations.
In a positive sign for the GOP over the long term, the poll finds a generational shift among Latinos that could open the door for Republicans as this immigrant group, like the ones that went before it, deepens its roots in the United States. But for the next four months of this election year, Romney's path is steeply uphill.
"He has the most conservative position on immigration reform of any nominee of our lifetime," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina says. "It's not the only issue Latino voters care about, but it is an important issue that shows people whose side they are on, and it's clear that Mitt Romney's against them."
Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse says the economy is the top issue for Latinos, as for other voters.
"President Obama's last-minute pandering to Hispanics can't make up for his record of failed policies that have resulted in Hispanics comprising fully one-third of Americans who are living in poverty," Newhouse says. "Once Hispanic voters realize the president's broken promises to their community, Gov. Romney will win more than his share of their votes. This is why our campaign has been ramping up efforts to get our message to Americans of Hispanic descent."
On Friday, Romney announced Hispanic "Juntos con Romney" ("Together with Romney") teams in 15 states, and his campaign has begun airing more TV and radio ads on Spanish-language stations. In a speech to a convention of Hispanic officials in Orlando on Thursday, he took a softer tone on immigration than he had when battling for the Republican nomination.
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