WASHINGTON — With illegal immigration emerging as a defining issue in a GOP presidential race that was expected to be primarily focused on the nation's struggling economy,
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the talk on the issue — and the focus on sealing the border with Mexico — is not going down well with Latino voters.
Whoever becomes the nominee to oppose President Barack Obama's re-election bid next year will need support from Latinos — the largest and fastest growing U.S. minority group — to win the White House.
In 2008, Obama defeated Republican John McCain by more than a 2-1 margin among Hispanics — 67 percent to 31 percent, and became president. To win in 2012, his opponent likely would need to increase the Republican share to 40 percent, matching the more immigration-friendly George W. Bush when he was re-elected in 2004.
For months now, immigration concerns have followed presidential contenders to town hall meetings from Nevada to Iowa to New Hampshire. And in some ways, immigration has shaped the increasingly bitter Republican nomination fight more than any other issue, particularly in a crowded field where the conservative candidates have more in common than not.
And while conservative voters may be driving immigration chatter on the campaign trail, the candidates are stoking voter passions when given the opportunity.
Video: GOP candidates push for border security (on this page)
"I'm not surprised that immigration is playing as big a role as it is," said Kevin Smith, a likely New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial candidate who has watched the candidates face repeated questions about the topic on the campaign trail. "This issue plays very well with Republican primary voters."
The Republican hopefuls kept up their hard talk on illegal immigration in Tuesday's debate in Nevada, one of the swing states where the 2012 election will likely be decided, and where 27 percent of the population is Hispanic.
Texas Governor Rick Perry said he would use predator drones along the Mexican border, and advocated sending additional troops to patrol the frontier.
At every turn, Perry has been forced to defend his signing of a law that allowed some illegal immigrants to get in-state college tuition.
Perry's sudden drop
Perry's sudden drop in the polls was largely attributed to weak debate performances involving his support for the Texas law. He suggested that Republicans who oppose the policy were heartless. And Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney fueled the tuition criticism every chance he got.
But Perry tried to neutralize the attacks this week. The outspoken Texan raised new questions at the debate about Romney's use of a landscaping company that employed illegal immigrants at his suburban Boston home several years ago.Story: FACT CHECK: Misfires on taxes and more in debate
Romney lashed back at Perry because he had not supported building a fence all along Texas's 1,300-mile border with Mexico.
For Romney, it was a frustrating return to an issue that played out in his 2008 presidential campaign.
At that time, and again Tuesday night, he said he had little control over whether a landscaping company he legally hired had illegal immigrants on the payroll. But the exchange provided one of the few moments in this presidential campaign in which the usually poised Romney showed flashes of anger.
That anger was apparent in campaign rhetoric from both sides the day after the debate.
"Gov. Perry is desperate to deflect from his liberal immigration record," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said, calling Perry's launching of "a personal and untruthful attack" on Romney "unpresidential."
Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said, "Mr. Romney has been demagoguing and distorting these immigration and border control issues for months now."
Sullivan argued that Romney was "exposed as someone who had illegal immigrants working in his lawn and cleaning his tennis court."
Sullivan would not say whether Perry might exploit the issue in television advertising, but he hinted that Romney has only seen the beginning of the new criticism.
Businessman Herman Cain, who has emerged as a frontrunner in the nomination race, was asked about his comment that the United States should build an electrified fence along the Mexican frontier, with barbed wire on top.
Cain said during the weekend he was sorry if his remarks had offended anyone, but said he was not walking away from the idea. "I don't apologize at all for wanting to protect the American citizens and to protect our agents on the border. No," Cain said on Tuesday.Video: Can surging Cain keep top spot? (on this page)
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann said she would fence the entire Mexican border and lashed out against foreign women who come to the United States and give birth to children as "anchors" on which they base their claim to stay.
"I will build the fence. I will enforce English as the official language of the U.S. government," Bachmann said.
Romney eventually interrupted the fierce discussion to take a cooler tone.
"I think it's important for us as Republicans on this stage to say something which hasn't been said. And that is I think every single person here loves legal immigration. We respect people who come here legally," he said.
But damage may have been done.
Robert Zavala, a Las Vegas resident who is a registered Republican, reminded the panel that not every Latino is in the country illegally. "What is the message from you guys to our Latino community?" he asked.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.