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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The presidential campaign shifted focus a bit this week as President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney both reached out to the fast-growing population of Latino voters. The two men spoke to a national gathering of Hispanic politicians in Florida. Immigration, of course, is an urgent issue after Mr. Obama's decision last week to try to stop deporting some illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
The two candidates also disagreed over health care, tax policy and the direction of the U.S. economy. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The candidates spoke at back-to-back luncheons before the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, or NALEO. And security was noticeably tighter on the day of Mr. Obama's speech. As NALEO President Sylvia Garcia noted, there were no knives on the lunch tables. And hotel staffers collected all the forks before the president's arrival.
SYLVIA GARCIA: You know, I told the staff, perhaps we should have just put a tortilla there and we could have just made a taco.
HORSLEY: The Secret Service need not have worried. This audience was strongly supportive of the president, especially after Mr. Obama took executive action last week to spare illegal immigrants who came to the country as children from being deported.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They are Americans. In their hearts, in their minds, they are Americans through and through. In every single way but on paper. And all they want is to go to college and give back to the country they love.
HORSLEY: Polls show widespread support for the president's move, but Mitt Romney cast it as a cynical political ploy. Romney, who took a hard line against illegal immigration during the GOP primaries, promised a more lasting legislative solution, one that would include steps to help employers weed out undocumented workers.
MITT ROMNEY: We must also make legal immigration more attractive than illegal immigration, so that people are rewarded for waiting patiently in line.
HORSLEY: Romney said nothing about how he'd handle illegal immigrants who are already in the U.S., except to promise a path to citizenship for those who serve in the military. NALEO executive director Arturo Vargas says, as emotional as this issue is, it's not the only thing that Latino voters care about.
ARTURO VARGAS: Latinos are not a one-issue constituency. Immigration reform is extremely important. But even more important for Latinos overall is the economy; the rate of unemployment, foreclosures crisis. Poll after poll of Latino voters shows that the economy is top of mind. So, both candidates need to speak to all of the issues that are important to Latinos.
HORSLEY: Romney is counting on the weak economy to serve as an opening with Latino voters. He highlighted the double-digit unemployment rate among Latinos, nearly three points higher than the national average.
ROMNEY: Over 2-million more Hispanics are living in poverty today than the day when President Obama took office. Home values have plunged. Our national debt is at record levels. And families are buried under higher prices for things like food and gasoline.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama acknowledged the economy is far from where it needs to be. But he says Romney's proposed remedy - doing away with a health care law that extends coverage to as many as 9 million Latinos and cutting taxes, especially for the wealthy - is not the answer.
OBAMA: You know, in this country prosperity has never come from the top down. It comes from a strong and growing middle class, and creating ladders of opportunity for all those who are striving to get into the middle class.
HORSLEY: So far, polls suggest the president's message is the one that's sticking with most Latinos. But it's not a constituency either party can afford to write off. NALEO's Vargas estimates more than 12 million Latinos will cast ballots in November - a 26 percent increase from four years ago. The fast-growing group could be decisive in a number of hotly-contested states, including Florida, New Mexico and Virginia.
VARGAS: Both candidates now are looking at an electorate that's in the center. That's exactly where Latinos sit. Both understand the road to the White House necessarily goes through the Latino community.
HORSLEY: Romney told his audience Thursday this is not an election about Republicans or Democrats but rather about the future of America. On that one point, Mr. Obama said, he could not agree more.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.