ORLANDO, Fla. – For the first time since immigration was thrust onto the forefront of the presidential contest, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, is scheduled to address Latino leaders and is expected to push an economy-focused message.
Romney on Thursday is addressing the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. President Barack Obama will speak to the same group Friday.
It is clear. The economy is number one. No other community has been as hit as hard as the Latino community has by this economic downturn.
Romney has struggled in recent days to clarify his immigration policy as he pivots from the harsh rhetoric that defined the monthslong GOP primary to a general election audience in which Latinos will play a critical role.
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.
At least one in six Americans is of Hispanic descent, according to the Census Bureau.
"We're talking about a significant share of the American electorate that could well decide this election," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the Latino association. "It's only now that both candidates are turning their attention to the Latino vote."
Romney's speech comes as the Supreme Court prepares to render judgment on a get-tough Arizona law and after Obama announced plans to ease deportation rules for some children of undocumented immigrants.
Obama is riding a wave of Latino enthusiasm over his decision to allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country and work. Under the administration plan, undocumented 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, and 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 1.4 million, the Pew Hispanic Center's estimate.
Romney has refused to say whether he would reverse the policy if elected, but he has seized on the temporary status of Obama's plan as his prime criticism. The Republican has also highlighted what he calls the president's "broken promises" to deliver comprehensive immigration reform during his first term.
"These people deserve to understand what their status will be long term, not just 4 1/2 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."
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.
As is typical, Romney intends to focus on the economy when he faces the Latino convention. 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.
That's a message that resonates with Latinos, according to Vargas.
"Overall, what's on the minds of the folks who will be gathering here is the state of the economy — the need for more jobs," he said. "Latino workers have suffered."
Latino political experts warn that the two opponents should not just focus on the contentious immigration issue that has been driving recent political headlines. For Latinos across the country, like most American voters, the economy remains their major concern.
"It is clear. The economy is number one. No other community has been as hit as hard as the Latino community has by this economic downturn, " said Max Seivilla, of NALEO.
"Be it unemployment, or housing foreclosures, the Latino community has been devastated," said Seivilla, who is policy director for NALEO.
The Obama and Romney campaigns have been making a concerted push to appeal to Hispanic voters.
NALEO organizers say immigration is still a major issue that has the ability to unite the Latino population, despite the differences in views among its various group.
Between 1,000 to 1,200 Latino elected and appointed officials are expected to hear the candidates speak at the convention. Less than 5 months remain until election day in November.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, who is being vetted as a potential running mate for Romney, will also speak at the event. The Floridian of Cuban descent would be the first Latino on a presidential ticket if chosen.
Regardless of his focus, Romney's appearance will draw attention to his recent rhetoric on the immigration issue.
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 has said he does not support the Obama administration's lawsuit challenging Arizona's hard-line immigration law. And he said that he would veto the DREAM Act, which would have given legal status to some children of undocumented immigrants.
Obama so far has vastly outspent 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, a fluent Spanish speaker.
Romney is set to leave Florida later Thursday en route to a three-day retreat with fundraisers in Utah.
Reporting by the Associated Press.
Additional reporting by Fox News Producer Serafin Gomez in Miami.