By Steve Holland and Sam Youngman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney is launching a push to appeal to Hispanic voters but has far to go to reverse a huge lead that President Barack Obama holds with this key voting bloc.
At a speech set for Wednesday to a Latino small business group in Washington, Romney is expected to stress his view that a healthy U.S. economy is the main issue for Hispanics in the November 6 election, as it is with all Americans - and that he has the ability to improve it.
But whether this argument will be enough to peel away many Hispanics from Obama is unclear. The outcome of the election may be at stake, with Hispanics representing key voting blocs in several pivotal battleground states. Hispanics also represent the largest minority overall in the United States.
Romney and his campaign aides are aware that the former Massachusetts governor has a problem when it comes to appealing to Hispanic voters after a bruising Republican primary battle that forced him to the right on illegal immigration.
"My only question is how well and how quickly are we getting the Hispanic effort going," said an informal Romney adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The campaign needs to get on the air (with ads) and send him into some Hispanic events. There's a lot of stuff that needs to get going."
For Romney, the problems are legion when it comes to attracting Hispanics. His campaign is only beginning to stir.
He is just now out with his first Spanish-language television ad for the general election campaign, coming in after the Democratic incumbent has been on the airwaves in Colorado, Nevada and Florida since April 17, both on television and radio. The Obama team has already spent an estimated $1 million on Spanish-language ads.
Notably, Romney has yet to soften his position from his support during the primary campaign of "self-deportation" for illegal immigrants, which alienated Hispanics. Most illegal immigrants in the United States are Hispanics.
During a primary campaign in which he and his Republican rivals spoke toughly about illegal immigration, Romney made an issue out of a policy that a conservative rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry, put in place to allow children of illegal immigrants to gain financial aid for attending Texas colleges.
While Romney scored points with conservatives for the attack, it contributed to a picture of the Republican Party as being out of touch with the concerns of Hispanic voters.
Since Romney all but sewed up the Republican presidential nomination, he has held few events aimed directly at Hispanic voters and has not yet made Hispanic outreach a prominent feature of his campaign, although aides say that is now changing.
Romney has yet to embrace a proposal from a Republican backer, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for an alternative to the proposed Dream Act supported by Democrats to grant a path to citizenship to law-abiding young people who as children were brought into the country as illegal immigrants.
Rubio's plan would grant visas to the children but not a direct path to citizenship. The broader Dream Act backed by Democrats has stalled in the U.S. Congress in the face of Republican opposition.
Rubio, a Cuban-American, has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Romney, and the two have campaigned together.
Romney is attempting to engage Hispanic voters by focusing on the weak U.S. economy in the belief that they - and everyone else - would benefit with greater U.S. job growth. His Wednesday speech to the Latino Coalition's annual economic summit is in line with his view that improved education for all would boost jobs and the overall economy.
But he has far to go to reverse what happened in the 2008 election, when Obama won the Hispanic vote 67 percent to 31 percent for his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain.
A Pew Research poll found Romney thus far has even less support than McCain did among Hispanics, 27 percent.
"We all know what the answer is, and what the problem is," McCain told Fox News Latino. "It's the issue of immigration. And we have to treat it in a humane fashion."
The Obama campaign already has a well-worn path to Hispanic voters, sending regular bilingual emails to supporters, pointing them to a Spanish-language campaign website, and more.
"We've been on the ground for a year now in all the states where the Hispanic community is important - Latino phone banks and canvassing, door knocking. We've been doing this for over a year," said an Obama campaign official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Hispanics represent potentially powerful voting blocs in several election battleground states, including Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and perhaps even Virginia and North Carolina, with their growing Hispanic populations.
Jennifer Korn, director of the advocacy group Hispanic Leadership Network, said Romney needs to build up a superb grassroots organization in Hispanic communities, and deploy Hispanic surrogates to these areas to speak on Romney's behalf.
"He himself needs to go into the community itself," Korn said.
"I think we're going to see a ramp-up of all these things but it needs to be continuous and throughout the country. You can't just go to Florida. You have to go out to the Southwest. And he needs to talk about immigration in a way that doesn't turn off Hispanics. I think he'll need to focus more on what he's for and less on what he's against," Korn added.
Dave Carney, a Republican strategist who has frequently advised Perry, said the Texas governor has done well with Hispanics in his state by showing them respect, which he said would be good advice for Romney to follow.
"Romney reaching out to them and talking to them in ways that are respectful are things that will pay off in the long run," he said.
(Editing by Will Dunham)