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Latino vote could make/break election

Republican presidential Mitt Romney greets attendees National AssociatiLatino Elected Appointed Officialsconference Orlando Fla. last Thursday.  |  Charles Dharapak~AP

Republican presidential Mitt Romney greets attendees at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officialsconference in Orlando, Fla., last Thursday. | Charles Dharapak~AP

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Updated: July 26, 2012 6:18AM

Araceli Flores is an enthusiastic 19-year-old college student looking forward to voting in her first presidential election in November.

A sophomore at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she has been waiting for President Obama and Mitt Romney to make an impression on her.

With his executive order that should allow hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation, “it’s going to make me consider Obama,” Flores said.

Yet Flores hasn’t made up her mind. That says a lot.

Romney is still in the game among Latinos. Barely.

Obama largely has been a disappointment to those who expected him to work on immigration reform in his first and possibly only term.

“It’s good to celebrate a move forward, but he got into office based on some promises he made to the Latino community and didn’t meet any of them,” said Hugo Teruel, associate director for Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services at UIC. “We see valedictorians who aren’t sure they can get a college degree.”

That could change under the president’s executive order for those under 30 with high school diplomas and have lived in the U.S. for at least five years.

Flores is a citizen and doesn’t need the executive order. But she can sympathize with the plight of others because her parents were undocumented immigrants. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights estimates that 60 percent of Latinos know someone who has been deported.

More undocumented immigrants have been deported under Obama than any other president, and that’s something that could bring about enough indifference to keep Latino-Americans from voting in November and give Romney an opportunity to make headway.

Obama’s electoral votes are safe in Illinois, of course, but not in swing states such as Colorado and Florida, where the Latino vote looms large.

Romney “does have a shot because of the bitterness toward Obama and the economy,” Joshua Hoyt, chief strategy executive of the ICIRR, told me. “He’s going to spend on Spanish-language media. But what’s Romney going to say? He will have to make a shift.”

Romney took the toughest stand on immigration among the Republican candidates during the primaries. He shed his image as a moderate to appease the ultra right-wing conservatives.

“He’s been willing to demagogue on [immigration],” Hoyt said.

Some words just sound ugly — and demagogue is one of them. But on immigration, it fits Romney.

Now Romney faces a balancing act to keep the extreme right on his side while trying to attract moderates and minorities.

Last week, while addressing the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Romney spoke in vague terms about keeping families together and attaching green cards to advanced degrees.

That’s a start.

After news media outlets reported that Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, was not being vetted as a vice-presidential candidate, Romney quickly refuted them. Rubio would give Romney a huge boost among Latino-Americans.

Rubio, Romney and other Republicans denounced Obama’s order, criticizing him for not trying to pass a bill through Congress. Some said he was pandering to Latino voters.

They were right, but so what? All that mattered was that Obama took a huge step, albeit a temporary one.

Now how can they impress us?

Marlen Garcia, a life-long Chicagoan and former sports reporter for the Chicago Tribune and USA Today, is writing a weekly Monday column for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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