By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans fighting for the presidential nomination are slamming frontrunner Rick Perry over illegal immigration, but his moderate stance could be one of his biggest assets in a contest with President Barack Obama.
Perry, three-term governor of Texas, has a strong record of attracting Hispanics -- the largest and fastest-growing minority group, and one whose voters could prove decisive in the 2012 race for the White House.
He drew 39 percent of Hispanic voters when he won a third term as governor in 2010. To defeat Obama, political strategists say a Republican would need to win 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, a figure President George W. Bush hit when he won re-election in 2004.
"Rick Perry has always been a pragmatist in terms of his relationship with the Hispanic community," said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Texas.
"What he tries to do is keep the Republican base happy but not pursue policies that will alienate that part of the Hispanic population that, other things being equal, would prefer to vote Republican," Jones said.
But Perry has to get to the general election first, and the very immigration platform that would help him -- and the Republican Party -- face Obama could stop him from clinching the nomination at all.
Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue in the Republican party, and wavering from staunch opposition can lessen chances of success in the fight to become the nominee, in which conservative party members play an outsized role.
That might mean a missed opportunity for Republicans to capitalize on Hispanic unhappiness with Obama for deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants and failing to pass immigration reforms. Several recent polls have show Obama's support slipping among Hispanics, who say he has not done enough to address their needs.
Attacks on Perry's immigration positions scored points at a debate in Florida last week -- he was booed by the Republican audience for allowing immigrants to pay the lower tuition rate for state residents at Texas colleges -- and helped contribute to questions about the front-runner's staying power.
Perry also opposes a bigger fence along the border.
His main rival, Mitt Romney, who is viewed skeptically by many on the party's right wing, pounced on the issue to bolster his own conservative credentials. Two days after the debate, Florida conservatives staged a protest vote in a nonbinding straw poll that gave former pizza executive Herman Cain the win over Perry.
"Governor Perry badly miscalculated on immigration. To most Republican voters, it is not the top issue in their minds, but it is symbolic of whether someone shares in their values," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who has worked for Florida's governor.
NOT A DEMOCRATIC BLOC
Hispanic voters generally support Democrats, but they are far more divided than black voters. Republicans who have moderated their tone on the polarizing immigration issue have won over Latinos on the economy and jobs, and social issues like opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
"Republican candidates can be very, very competitive with the Hispanic community," said Lisa Navarrete of the National Council of La Raza, the largest U.S. Hispanic civil rights organization.
There are many high-profile Latino Republican officeholders, including Marco Rubio, a Florida senator considered a potential vice presidential candidate.
Bush, Texas governor before Perry, supported immigration reform and won Hispanic support in both 2000 and 2004.
But the Republican party has since turned against initiatives that include paths to citizenship for the country's 12 million illegal immigrants, focusing instead on measures like fencing the Mexican border.
In 2008, Obama defeated Republican John McCain by more than a 2-1 margin among Hispanics -- 67 percent to 31 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic center.
More recently, many Republicans have rallied around a law in Arizona that gave police more power to check whether anyone is a legal immigrant, which many Hispanics reject as racial profiling.
As Perry defended his immigration stance, he said he had helped defend the Arizona law, which raised flags for some activists. The controversial 2010 statute has kept immigration near the top of Latino voters' concerns.
"We consider it anti-Latino legislation, and that has really shaken up the community," said Navarrete, whose organization sponsored a boycott of Arizona. (Additional reporting by Kim Dixon; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)