For more than a decade, the debate in Washington over immigration policy has been stalemated over what to do with the estimated 11 million people — most of them Latino — who are in the U.S. unlawfully.
Latino activists and many Democratic politicians have backed plans that would allow at least some of those people to become citizens. Supporters call that a "path to citizenship," while opponents call it "amnesty."
Opponents of illegal immigration, backed by many Republicans, have argued for stronger measures to control the border and for stepped-up efforts to find and deport illegal residents.
Some prominent Republican strategists have worried that the party's tough stand on immigration could alienate Latino voters for years to come. In the GOP's ranks, however, many voters have strongly held views opposing anything that smacks of amnesty. And other Republican strategists believe that the immigration reform law adopted under President Reagan, which included amnesty for about 2.7 million illegal residents, hurt the party by adding a mostly Democratic group to the voting rolls.
In 2007, President George W. Bush tried to reconcile both sides with a compromise bill that would have given each part of what it wanted. The effort badly divided Republicans and died in the Senate.
Romney took a tough line during the Republican primaries on immigration, attacking rivals, particularly Texas Gov. Rick Perry, as being soft on the issue. Since the primaries, Romney has largely avoided the subject. He has pledged to complete a high-tech fence along the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, to create a national database that employers would be required to check before hiring anyone, and to expand the temporary worker system to bring in more seasonal farm labor legally. He has promised to oppose any plan that would give illegal residents a leg up on obtaining citizenship.
Obama promised in his 2008 campaign that he would push for comprehensive immigration reform including a path to citizenship. He failed to do that. His administration has stepped up deportations of illegal residents — sending a record number out of the country — focusing on those who have committed crimes. The administration also has increased efforts to find and punish companies that illegally hire immigrants who lack work permits.
At the same time, Obama has ordered a halt to deportations of young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. He has directed other steps to shield people who have clean records and community ties, whom the administration considers a low priority for deportation. Those steps have been popular with Latino groups, but have been denounced by conservative Republicans as a backdoor amnesty.
Moral values issues
Gay rights, abortion, stem cell research and related issues that involve conflicting moral values have played a more subdued role in this contest than in the 2004 presidential election, when they figured prominently.
The Obama campaign has pushed the idea that Republicans were waging a "war on women" aimed at restricting access to contraception. The Romney campaign has largely stayed away from those issues but has suffered with some female voters because of strict antiabortion positions in the party platform and high-profile statements by other Republicans. Romney himself took more liberal positions when he was running for governor in Massachusetts.
The political balance on gay rights issues has shifted since the 2004 campaign, with the public considerably more supportive of liberal positions on same-sex marriage, for example.
While the issues have been in the background, the candidates do have distinctly different positions.
Romney wants the Supreme Court to overturn its Roe vs. Wade decision, which guaranteed a woman's right to get an abortion through the first six months of her pregnancy. Obama supports Roe vs. Wade.
At least one vacancy on the Supreme Court is all but certain to come up during the next presidential term, and both men have said their views on abortion would play a role in their choice of a justice.
Romney also has pledged to stop federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood.
Under Obama, the Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars same-sex couples who are legally married from federal benefits that go to other married couples. Romney has pledged to defend the law. He also supports amending the Constitution to declare that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Depending on how the provision is worded, such an amendment could override state laws that allow gay marriage.
In an interview with the Des Moines Register in December, Romney said he had not been in favor of allowing gays to serve openly in the military, but "that's already occurred. I'm not planning on reversing that at this stage."