As President Obama and Mitt Romney prepare to face off in Denver on Wednesday in their first debate, both are focused keenly on the power of Latino voters to determine the election's outcome in Colorado, Nevada and Florida, among other states.
Dual gestures this week by the presidential rivals demonstrated two things: The president cannot do enough to ensure that Latinos show up to vote, and Romney is struggling to narrow the Democratic incumbent's lopsided advantage among them.
Within the span of a few hours Monday, Obama announced that he would visit the California home of civil rights icon Cesar Chavez at a ceremony next week designating it as a national monument, and Romney announced that he would honor Obama's order blocking the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants.
Since 1994, the number of Latinos registered to vote nationwide has doubled to 11 million, according to a new Pew Hispanic Center report. Particularly in a tight contest, they could provide a margin of victory in several states. But they are far less likely to turn out than other groups, posing a serious challenge for Obama.
On a visit to Las Vegas on Sunday, Obama held a rally on the city's heavily Latino east side. Over and over, he urged the 11,000 cheering supporters to be sure to cast their ballots. The event, featuring the Mexican rock group Mana, was part of his campaign's push to sign up thousands of new voters before Saturday's registration deadline in Nevada.
Obama used the occasion to remind Nevadans of the order that he signed in June to stop the deportation of many young immigrants who were brought to the United States as children by parents who lacked legal papers.
"You're the reason why a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here, and pledged allegiance to our flag, will no longer be deported from the only country she's ever called home," Obama told the crowd.
Obama's immigration order sparked a rise in enthusiasm for him among Latino supporters, although it still falls short of what it was four years ago, polls show. Obama has also opened a 50-percentage-point gap over Romney among likely Latino voters, leading 72% to 22%, according to a survey last month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
For Obama, "the challenge is not so much Romney as much as it's just apathy — getting Hispanic voters to turn out as they did four years ago," said Alan Salazar, a senior advisor to Colorado's Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper.
While lifting his own standing among Latinos, Obama's move on deportation also put Romney in a bind. If he pledged to reverse Obama's order, Romney risked further damage to his image among Latinos. If he vowed to uphold it, Romney would turn off white conservatives who liked his tough talk on illegal immigration during the primaries.
After months of dodging the issue, Romney tried to stop the hemorrhaging with Latinos.
"The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid," Romney told the Denver Post in an interview Monday on his campaign bus in Colorado. "I'm not going to take something that they've purchased. Before those visas have expired we will have the full immigration reform plan that I've proposed."
By "purchased," the former Massachusetts governor was referring to the $465 fee paid for the applications to the program, known officially as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Recipients receive a reprieve from deportation, not a visa.
Romney's comments marked a major shift from his positioning during the primaries, when he staked ground on immigration to the right of Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and other rivals. Then, Romney opposed efforts to legalize the status of anyone brought to the United States as a child by parents who were illegal immigrants, with the sole exception of those who served in the U.S. military. At a debate in January, he called for "self-deportation," saying the undocumented should return home and "apply for legal residency in the United States — get in line with everybody else."
"We're going to encourage a wave of illegal immigration by giving amnesty of some kind to those who have come here illegally," said Romney, who has yet to disclose what his immigration reform plan would entail.
Until Monday, Romney had refused to say whether he would halt Obama's program for younger immigrants, calling instead for an undefined "permanent solution" to be worked out with Congress and criticizing the president for failing to reach one.
On Tuesday, just hours after Romney softened his rhetoric, his campaign posted a blog item by legal policy advisor Dimple Gupta, who branded Obama's deportation order "a last-minute political stunt."
Gabriela Domenzain, the Obama campaign's director of Latino media, released a statement saying Romney's "latest immigration pivot raises more questions than it answers."
"He still has not said whether he would continue the administration's policy that provides a temporary reprieve from deportation for young people who were brought here through no fault of their own," she said. "Would he side with his extreme anti-immigration advisors and repeal this measure?"
Romney released the latest in a string of Spanish-language television ads Tuesday, this one attacking Obama over the national debt. He also dispatched Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to hold a rally for him in Henderson, Nev. Taking a break from debate rehearsal in Denver, Romney stopped for a burrito bowl lunch — with news cameras in tow — at Chipotle.
Mike Madrid, a Republican campaign consultant in Sacramento, said the big question for both sides was what Latino turnout would look like.
"That's why there's all this symbolism going on in both parties," he said. "Romney needs to keep the gap as close as possible. Obama needs to drive the turnout as high as he can."
Finnegan reported from Los Angeles, Hennessey from Las Vegas. Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.