Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks to Republicans...

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks to Republicans during the Black Hawk County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner in Iowa (Aug. 14, 2011) Credit: AP

Despite the avalanche of bad news for President Barack Obama, he remains the most likely winner of the 2012 elections.

That's the conclusion I reached after watching the top Republican presidential hopefuls in recent weeks, as they started in earnest the race for their party's nomination. They have taken such a hard line on issues that are dear to Latinos, that I don't see how any of them can win the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote that pollsters say Republicans will need to win the White House.

The last Republican president, George W. Bush, got 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, and the Latino vote has only become more important since. Former Republican candidate Sen. John McCain -- who ran as a moderate on immigration -- lost the 2008 campaign in part because he got only 31 percent of the Hispanic vote, pollsters say.

So the question today is, how will any of the current Republican hopefuls win a sizable part of the Hispanic vote, when they are embracing a much harder line on Hispanic issues than McCain did in 2008? At the Republican debate Thursday in Iowa, none of the participating hopefuls supported a comprehensive immigration reform policy -- as McCain did four years ago -- that would both secure the border and allow an earned path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants who are willing to, among other things, pay fines and learn English.

Their common stand seemed to be: "Let's first seal the border" and crack down on "illegals." Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who did not participate in the debate but announced his candidacy two days later, toes the same enforcement-first line.

As they try to woo conservative Republicans who tend to be the largest voting blocs in the primaries, they are likely to escalate their rhetoric. To Hispanics, they look like a group bent on the massive deportation of the estimated 11 million undocumented residents in the country, even bright students brought here as babies by their parents.

Republican pollsters note that according to their surveys, Hispanic voters place the economy, education and health ahead of immigration on their list of priorities.

Democratic pollsters counter that it will be hard for Republicans to campaign on the economy when Republican hopefuls are calling for deeper cuts in social programs that most Hispanics want to preserve. In addition, immigration plays a big role in Hispanics' voting decisions, they say.

"Immigration is an emotional issue," Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen told me. "It indicates to us which candidate likes us, and which one doesn't." Several Republican Party leaders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, have recently launched a Hispanic Leadership Network to woo Latinos to the Republican Party. Last week, I asked Gutierrez how his party can improve its standing among Latinos with its current anti-immigration, anti-social programs rhetoric.

Gutierrez, who supports former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, and considers his candidate to be a "pragmatist," conceded that Republicans will have a hard time winning with any candidate who Hispanics perceive as hostile to them.

"The Republican nominee will have to be someone who is a moderate," Gutierrez told me. "We have to embrace immigration: If we are the party of prosperity, we have to be the party of immigration." My opinion: Republicans have a big problem with Hispanics. Granted, Obama is facing an economic slowdown that affects Hispanics more than most other Americans, and he has failed to meet his campaign promise to pass a comprehensive immigration reform that could benefit millions of Latinos.

In addition, the Obama administration has deported nearly 1 million undocumented immigrants over the past three years -- more than Bush in his eight years in office. But Republicans won't be able to criticize Obama on any of these counts, because their presidential hopefuls are calling for deeper budget cuts without new taxes on the rich, and come across as supporting the massive deportation of all undocumented immigrants.

Barring a shift to the center that would help Republicans win more Hispanic votes, or a worse-than-expected U.S. economic downturn that would drive Latino voters to stay at home on Election Day rather than voting for the president, Obama will be re-elected in 2012.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. His email address is Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services