ASSOCIATED PRESS, BY JERI CLAUSING
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- In New Mexico, Tomasita Maestas says she will pick the presidential candidate who has the best plan to fix education and the economy.
In Arizona, Mexican immigrant Carlos Gomez backs Republican Mitt Romney because he's more conservative on social issues than his Democratic opponent.
In Miami, Colombia native Luna Lopez probably will vote for President Barack Obama now that he's decided to halt the deportation of many undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
The reasons that Hispanics give for choosing between Obama and Romney are just as diverse as the countries that they or their ancestors once called home, suggesting there's no one-size-fits-all approach to courting the nation's fastest-growing minority group.
The Latino vote isn't monolithic or, really, a voting bloc. It includes a range of people with varying opinions. Among them are Republican-leaning Cubans in Florida, new Mexican immigrants and longtime descendants of Spanish settlers in the Southwest, and Democratic-tilting Puerto Ricans in the East.
Immigration policy would seem to be the natural top issue for these voters, except that nearly two-thirds of Hispanics are born in the U.S. Their priorities are the same as the general population - jobs, the economy, education and health care.
"We need to see more jobs here, that's my No. 1 priority and what I want to hear about," says Stefan Gonzalez, an almost 18-year-old from Denver, whose heritage includes Spanish, Mexican and Native American roots. Gonzalez, who works in a suburban Denver pawn shop, says he plans to vote for Obama this fall.
In Albuquerque, Ernest Gurule, an 84-year-old whose ancestors settled New Mexico in 1580, says his main issue is the federal health care plan upheld by the Supreme Court last week, and that he'll back Obama in part because of it. Also, the Democrat, adds: "It's too expensive to change horses midstream."
Democrats and Republicans are in a fierce race to figure out how to best reach Hispanics.
In the short term, these voters could decide the outcome in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and elsewhere. The long-term stakes are even bigger because Hispanics are projected to account for roughly 30 percent of the population by 2050, doubling in size and, potentially changing the national political landscape.
Like most minorities, Hispanics traditionally have leaned Democratic. But a recent Pew Research poll indicates that Hispanics also are the fastest-growing group of independent voters, with 46 percent now shunning a party label compared with 31 percent six years ago. Such results only underscore how diverse Hispanics are and the challenges for the political parties.
"It is going to be a very hard fight to win," says Jennifer Korn, the executive director of the Republican-based Hispanic Leadership Network, which was established to help bring more Hispanic voters to the GOP. "The more they assimilate, the more sophisticated they become and that's when they start dividing between parties."
For now at least, Obama and his Democrats have an advantage, with the latest polls showing 65 percent of Hispanics back Obama and 25 percent back Romney.
The Democrats' campaign has worked to keep that edge, helped by Obama's new immigration policy and the Supreme Court's decision to side with the administration on most of an Arizona law that many immigrants viewed as overly harsh.
His campaign has spent the past year setting up offices with grassroots outreach to Hispanic communities in the Southwest, as well as in important states such as Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Mindful of the diversity among Hispanics, Obama has custom-tailored his outreach, including tweaking Spanish dialect for different regions.
For instance, in Florida the campaign has two distinct outreach plans. One focuses on Cuban-Americans in Miami who tend to lean Republican and are less concerned about immigration; the other speaks to traditionally Democratic Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens from birth, as well as new immigrants from Central America.
Obama also has promoted the new health law, which can resonate in states such as New Mexico, which has one of the highest rates of uninsured in the country.
Romney has plenty of ground to make up after a bruising primary season filled with tough rhetoric that even Republicans acknowledge turned off many Hispanics. He recently established a Hispanic advisory group that includes top elected Republican Hispanics.
During the primaries, the former Massachusetts governor pledged to veto legislation, known as the DREAM Act, that would give a path to citizenship to young immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children but have since attended school or served in the military. He has since toned down his anti-immigration stance, which included self-deportation, telling a Hispanic leadership gathering in the Orlando area that he would address illegal immigration "in a civil but resolute manner."
Alexandra Franceschi, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee's Hispanic effort, made clear that the GOP outreach will focus broadly on the economy. "Hispanics are Americans and are facing the same issues as everyone else, chronically high unemployment, lower pay and rising health care costs," she said.
Republicans have noted that under Obama, the Hispanic unemployment rate is higher than the national average. And Hispanics' median household income fell 7 percent between 2000 and 2010, from $43,100 to $40,000, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
What drives Hispanics to vote depends on who's asked.
Lopez, a 20-year-old new citizen and college student from Colombia, cites Obama's policy shift on deportation as reason she's likely to pick him when she casts her first vote in the country.
"The issue didn't directly affect me, but I have many family members and friends who it did," she said.
In Arizona, Gomez, a 43-year-old priest who immigrated to Phoenix 15 years ago, backed Obama's policy change. But Gomez says immigration isn't his priority because "immigrants will continue coming across the border no matter what we do." He says he's voting for Romney because, like him, the Republican opposes gay marriage and abortion rights.
In Albuquerque, Maestas, a 37-year-old mother and office manager, is focused intently on pocketbook issues. Immigration, she says, is only important to "a certain point" because "If you can't take care of your own, how are you going to take care of others?"
Associated Press writers Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami, Kristen Wyatt in Denver and Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix contributed to this report.