Julie Jacobson, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS — Elizabeth Alvisar is exactly the sort of voter Mitt Romney needs.
A victim of the brutal economy in this swing state, the 30-year-old tax preparer has been out of work for months. She's a foe of abortion and gay marriage, and was naturally drawn to the Republican ticket.
But Alvisar has switched her support to President Barack Obama now.
"It's just because of the Dream Act," she said, referring to the president's August executive order that allows people brought into the country illegally as children to avoid deportation if they graduate high school or join the military. "I have a lot of friends who've taken advantage of that opportunity."
In the heavily Hispanic neighborhood where Alvisar lives, unemployment is high and home values are down. But Obama's immigration stance, and especially his executive order, has locked in support from a fast-growing demographic group that has been trending sharply Democratic in the wake of increasingly hard-line Republican positions on immigration.
Obama's campaign is counting on Hispanics providing the margin of victory not just in Nevada, but also in other swing states such as Colorado, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina
"They know that he's on the right side of the immigration issue and wants to work with Congress for comprehensive immigration reform," deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said. "They know he wakes up every day and thinks about how to secure the middle class and make it easier for young people to enter the middle class."
The importance of Hispanics as a voting bloc and immigration as an election-year issue was brought home during last week's presidential debate. Obama reminded viewers that Romney, who went hard to the right on the issue during the GOP primaries, had argued for "self-deportation" to solve the illegal immigration problem and took advice on the issue from the law professor who helped write Arizona's controversial immigration statute. The Republican challenger noted that Obama had promised to pass an immigration overhaul and had failed.
The Romney campaign says Hispanics, enduring a 9.9 percent jobless rate, which is more than 2 points higher than the national average, are a natural draw for the GOP ticket. "Hispanics are hurting almost more than any other demographic group under the Obama economy," Romney's Spanish-speaking son Craig, a frequent surrogate in the Hispanic community, said in a brief interview. "They're really struggling and they understand that this president has failed them and we need someone who understands how to create jobs."
The Romney campaign opened an office here in September and last week hosted New Mexico's popular Hispanic governor, Susannah Martinez, in an effort to cut into Obama's edge in East Las Vegas, home to 42 percent of Nevada's Hispanic population.
But even some Romney supporters are pessimistic that Republicans can make inroads with a population that, many polls show, favors Obama by a 2-to-1 margin.
"It's going to take several years because we haven't engaged this community at all," said Joel Garcia, a conservative who formed a coalition to recruit Hispanics here. "You've got a lot of Hispanics who are conservative in how they live their lives and their values, but there's this hook in their mouth pulling them left called immigration."
Much like any other group, Hispanics often list the economy, jobs and education as top issues in polls. But the acrimonious immigration debate of the past decade has given that issue extra weight for them. "What started as a war on illegal immigration is now being perceived as a war on Latinos," said Matt Barreto, who polls Hispanics for the company Latino Decisions.
Nevada is a prime example of that dynamic. In 2010, Hispanics helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid win re-election against a tea party candidate who promoted her staunch anti-illegal immigration stance. Republican Brian Sandoval, a Hispanic who was elected governor at the same time, only won 33 percent of the Hispanic vote.
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