WHITE HOUSE - In a speech to a major Hispanic organization in the key election battleground state of Florida, President Barack Obama sought to solidify his support among Latino voters, a group that will be crucial to his hopes for re-election in November.
Hispanic voters may well determine who wins the White House. They could swing the election to either candidate in key battleground states such as Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia in the East, Colorado and Nevada in the West.
Mr. Obama last addressed NALEO, an organization representing elected Latino officials, more than three years ago pledging to be a partner in the White House for Hispanics.
In 2008, he won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote and opinion surveys show him with an overwhelming lead over Romney among Hispanics. But Republicans in Congress have blocked his efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.
Speaking to the conference on Thursday, Mitt Romney criticized Mr. Obama's executive order ending deportations of thousands of children of illegal aliens, saying the president only did so to win Hispanic votes.
Mr. Obama said while not a "permanent fix" his decision was the right thing to do.
"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," said President Obama. "So lifting the shadow of deportation and giving them a reason to hope, that was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do."
Mr. Obama noted Romney's pledge to veto the DREAM Act, legislation blocked by Republicans that would give young immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
"Your speaker from yesterday has a different view," said Obama. "In his speech he said when he makes a promise to you he will keep it. Well, he has promised to veto the Dream Act and we should take him at his word."
In his speech on Thursday, Mitt Romney did not specifically mention the Dream Act. He described Mr. Obama's decision as a "stopgap measure" but did not say if he would reverse the policy if he is elected president.
Romney said Hispanics have a real alternative to casting their votes in November for Mr. Obama, who he asserted has failed to fulfill his promises to the nation's Hispanic voters.
"I believe he is taking your vote for granted," said Romney. "I have come here today with a simple message. You do have an alternative. Your vote should be respected and your voice is more important now than ever before."
Also addressing the Hispanic organization on Friday was Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is a potential Romney vice presidential running mate.
He suggested that Mr. Obama used his executive order to end deportations for political reasons, asserting it wasn't a "coincidence" that the president had not spoken to the Hispanic organization in three years.
He decried the use of the immigration issue for political reasons by both political parties, urging what he called a balanced approach.
"There are too many people that have concluded that this issue unresolved is more powerful," said Rubio. "They want it to stay unresolved. It is easier to influence elections, it is easier to use to raise money. The only way to solve it is a balanced approach that recognizes that this is complicated."
In his remarks on Friday, President Obama said the Dream Act and immigration reform in general continue to be blocked by "stalemate" in Congress. Republicans who had worked in the past for reform were "driven away from the table by a small faction in their own party".
Mr. Obama said as long as he is president he will not give up the fight for immigration reform.