LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama is courting Hispanics in politically important states, setting himself up as a champion of the crucial Latino voting bloc and as a foil to Republican candidates fighting for a share of support from the same groups.
With Latino voters voting overwhelmingly Democratic, Obama is not in danger of losing the support of a majority of Hispanics. But he does need their intensity, and a Gallup tracking poll shows that while a majority of Hispanics approve of Obama, that approval is not as high as it is among black voters.
Pitching his economic agenda during a three-day, five state trip this week, Obama has not ignored the fact that three of the states — Nevada, Arizona and Colorado — all have Hispanic populations of 20 percent or more. A majority of them are Democratic, but they also could be a factor in upcoming nominating contests in those states. Nevada and Colorado hold caucuses within two weeks and Arizona has a primary Feb. 28.
In Arizona Wednesday, where he was drawing attention to his efforts to increase manufacturing, Obama playfully interacted with a supporter who shouted out: "Barack es mi hermano! (Barack is my brother) !"
"Mi hermano — mucho gusto (My brother, a real pleasure)," Obama shouted back.
And it was no accident that he scheduled an interview with Univision, the Spanish language network that reaches a broad swath of the U.S. Latino population, while he was in Arizona, heading for Nevada and Colorado, and while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the rest of the Republican presidential field were battling in Florida.
No issue reverberates more in the appeal to Latinos than immigration.
For Obama, it reared up suddenly for him Wednesday when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who signed one of the toughest laws to curtail illegal immigration, greeted him at the airport tarmac in Mesa, Ariz., with a handwritten invitation for the president to join her in a visit to the Mexican border.
Obama replied coolly, noting that he did not appreciate the way she had depicted him in a book she published last year, "Scorpions for Breakfast." In the book, Brewer writes that Obama was condescending and lectured her during a meeting at the White House to discuss immigration. "He was a little disturbed about my book," Brewer told two reporters shortly after the encounter.
Obama continued to promote his economic plan Thursday, focusing on energy policy and his attempts to expand oil and gas exploration while also emphasizing clean energy. As such, he was indirectly pitching to Hispanics as well. A new Pew Research Center poll found that 54 percent of Latinos believe that the economic downturn has been harder on them than on other groups in the U.S.
In 2008, Obama beat Republican John McCain by a 2-1 margin among Hispanics.
To win again, he will need that level of enthusiasm to make up for weaknesses elsewhere in his voter support. In a bright spot for Obama, the Pew poll found that even though Hispanics believe their economic condition is poor, two-thirds of those polled said they expect their financial situation to improve over the next year, whereas 58 percent of the overall population expect the same.
In his interview with Univision, Obama made a point of noting that both Romney and Gingrich have said they would veto legislation, known as the DREAM Act, that would give a pathway to citizenship to children who came to the United States illegally but who attend college or enlist in the military.
"They believe that we should not provide a pathway to citizenship for young people who were brought here when they were very young children and are basically American kids but right now are still in a shadow," Obama said. "They've said that they would veto the DREAM Act. Both of them."
At a debate Monday on NBC, however, both Gingrich and Romney said they would support modified legislation that only applied to young people who joined the military. "I would not support the part that simply says everybody who goes to college is automatically waived for having broken the law," Gingrich said.
Obama, in the interview, explicitly connected the Republican presidential field to congressional Republicans, who suffer from bottom-dwelling approval ratings right now. Asked why he had been unable to deliver on his promise for overhauling the immigration system, Obama replied:
"Well, it's very simple. We couldn't get any Republican votes. Zero. None," he said. "So this is the kind of barrier that we're meeting in Congress. We're just going to keep on pushing and pushing until hopefully we finally get a break."