By Jeff Mason
DENVER (Reuters) - With Hispanic voters upset at Republican presidential candidates over immigration, President Barack Obama played to a Latino audience on a trip to the West this week to shore up support from a group that is key to his re-election hopes.
Obama, a Democrat, made stops in California, Colorado, and Nevada. The latter two are swing states where the sizable Hispanic population could mean the difference between winning and losing in 2012.
Though Obama's trip was not billed as a Hispanic outreach tour, his public and private events were clearly designed with the Latino vote in mind.
In Las Vegas, he discussed housing policy with a Hispanic couple who had come to the United States as undocumented workers and later became U.S. citizens. Obama announced a new housing initiative with them and their children standing nearby in a made-for-television tableau.
The president made an unscheduled stop at a Los Angeles restaurant in a neighborhood dotted with Spanish-language billboards. He held a fundraiser focused solely on Latino donors, the first of its kind for his 2012 campaign. Actors Antonio Banderas and Eva Longoria hosted the event.
In Denver, Obama opened his remarks at a fundraiser by praising Colorado's Hispanic lieutenant governor at length.
"Between the two camps, only President Obama seems interested in attracting Latino votes right now, with Republicans continuing to damage their image and long-term reputation with hostile and inflammatory remarks about immigrants," said Latino Decisions pollster Matt Barreto.
Despite declining support from Hispanics, Obama is still more popular than his potential Republican rivals, who fought each other in a televised debate last week over who was tougher on illegal immigration.
A recent Pew Research poll showed Obama's approval ratings among Latinos at 51 percent compared to 58 percent in a Pew Hispanic Center poll conducted roughly a year ago.
"The president recognizes that our country's success is intricately tied to Hispanic success," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Gabriela Domenzain.
Obama announced new efforts to revive the housing market, create jobs and help with student loans during his western tour, which ended on Wednesday.
REPUBLICANS AND HISPANICS
Leading Republican candidate Herman Cain angered Hispanics by recommending an electrified fence on the Mexican border that could kill illegal immigrants.
Lauro Garza, the Texas director of the country's leading Latino conservative group Somos Republicans is severing his ties to the party over Cain's remarks.
But rather than outright opposition to the Republicans, many Hispanics are just not that interested in the party's presidential contenders.
"Most Latino voters say they have no opinion, or have never heard of the leading Republican candidates, an indicator that they are not doing much outreach," said Barreto, who is also a political science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
He said polling showed Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney with only 28 percent favorability rating among Latinos. Cain had favorability of 15 percent.
But Obama cannot rest easy. Many Hispanics are upset at his failure to pass immigration reform and the increase in deportations of undocumented workers.
All five of the new Latino members of the House of Representatives elected in 2010 were Republican, said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
The Senate's only Latino addition was Marco Rubio, who is considered a frontrunner for the Republican vice presidential slot in 2012.
"Obama's failed policies have hit Latinos especially hard," Kukowski said, adding that unemployment among that group was 11.3 percent compared to the overall rate of 9.1 percent.
Republicans ran Spanish-language ads for the presidential race in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida, she said.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)