By STEVE PEOPLES and KEN THOMAS, Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) — Hispanics are the focus as the race for the White House moves to Florida, a presidential battleground where a charged immigration debate is under way as President Barack Obama seeks to keep Republican challenger Mitt Romney on the defensive.
Facing a Spanish-speaking audience Wednesday night, the former Massachusetts governor was again forced to reiterate his commitment to all Americans following the release of remarks secretly captured on video in which he said, as a candidate, "my job is not to worry about" the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes and believe they are "victims" entitled to government help. "My campaign is about the 100 percent in America," Romney said at a Miami forum Wednesday broadcast by the Spanish-language television network Univision.
The GOP nominee declared that the GOP "is the natural home for Hispanic Americans because this is the party of opportunity and hope."
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, declined direct comment Thursday on Romney's caught-on-camera remarks about the 47 percent but made clear they had diverted the GOP nominee from what should be the central message of his campaign.
"The election is about jobs," Boehner told reporters on Capitol Hill. "It's not about anything else. Both camps on both sides say things that get off the message."
Obama and Romney were crisscrossing Florida on Thursday, with their travel plans nearly overlapping in Miami. Romney was departing the city for fundraisers and a rally in Sarasota on Thursday morning a few hours before Air Force One was to touch down in South Florida.
The president was speaking Thursday at the same Univision forum, where the Democratic incumbent was expected to face difficult questions about the strength of the nation's economy and his unfulfilled pledge to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
The focus on the growing U.S. Hispanic population comes with the election less than seven weeks away. While polls suggest the race is very close, Romney has struggled through a series of missteps in recent weeks that prompted vocal concern from Republicans about the direction of the campaign.
Battling the perception that he's not working hard enough, Romney on Thursday announced plans to launch a three-day bus tour across Ohio next week. His campaign also released a new ad featuring Florida Sen. Marco Rubio - a Republican rising star popular among traditional conservatives and Hispanic voters alike - promoting Romney's plans to overhaul Medicare.
The candidates' personal attention to Hispanic voters, backed by millions of dollars in targeted advertising, is designed to influence a group likely to play a critical role this fall - and for years to come. In an election to be decided in a handful of states with large Hispanic populations, Romney is fighting to erode Democrats' traditional advantage among the demographic.
In 2008, Obama carried Hispanics by 67 percent to Sen. John McCain's 31 percent, according to exit polls. Recent polls suggest that Obama enjoys a similar lead against Romney.
Obama has touted his administration's directive to protect immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, exempting them from deportation and granting temporary work permits for those who apply. It does not provide a path to citizenship.
Obama's campaign has repeatedly brought up Romney's opposition to the so-called DREAM Act, which would offer a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children but have since attended school or served in the military. Obama supported the measure, which remains stalled in Congress.
Obama was attending a fundraiser in Tampa later Thursday. About 85 people were expected at the event, with tickets starting at $20,000 a person. Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder was scheduled to perform at the fundraiser.
Romney largely avoided detailing his immigration plans on Wednesday, despite repeated questions from Univision hosts.
He downplayed his support earlier in the year for policies that would promote "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants, while suggesting he might favor legal status for young immigrants who serve in the military or pursue higher education.
"I'm not in favor of a deportation - mass deportation - effort, rounding up 12 million people and kicking them out of the country," Romney said. "I believe people make their own choices as to whether they want to go home, and that's what I mean by self-deportation."
And Romney assailed Obama's immigration record.
"He never tried to fix the immigration system," Romney said of the incumbent. "I will actually reform the immigration system and make it work for the people of America."
The Republican nominee's attempts to get his campaign back on track ran into new difficulty in the form of criticism from rank-and-file Republicans concerned about their own election prospects in the fall.
"I have a very different view of the world," said Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, taking issue with Romney's dismissive comments about Americans who pay no income taxes.
And Obama's allies are working to prevent Romney from gaining ground with Hispanics.
The liberal group MoveOn.org was to begin running ads in three swing states - Florida, Colorado and Nevada - on Thursday seizing on Romney's suggestion, captured by the same secret camera, that his political prospects would improve if he had Hispanic parents.
Romney repeatedly made clear he was joking.
"We're not laughing, Gov. Romney," a MoveOn member says in the ad. "Because regardless of race a presidential candidate who has such contempt for Latinos would never deserve our support."
At the same time, a new GOP-aligned group called the Libre Initiative plans to air Spanish-language ads in Florida, Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and North Carolina.
Obama's campaign has more than doubled Romney's spending on Hispanic-focused television ads so far - approximately $6.4 million from Obama to Romney's $2.9 million.