By Gabriel Debenedetti and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney's presidential campaign fended off questions on immigration policy on Wednesday as the Republican challenger scrambled for a response five days after President Barack Obama's relaxation of immigration policy drew accolades from Hispanic voters.
Questions on the Republican challenger's position on immigration dominated a campaign conference call Wednesday that was supposed to be about the economy. The call was cut off early after what a Romney staffer said were "off-topic" questions.
After taking a hard line during the Republican presidential primary season against illegal immigration, Romney has struggled to frame an immigration message that would appeal to Hispanics and keep conservatives in his own party happy.
He will address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, in Florida, on Thursday.
"He's speaking to NALEO tomorrow in Orlando, and will have a few more things to say there about immigration," Lanhee Chen, Romney's campaign policy director, said on the conference call. "Governor Romney is going to address immigration tomorrow when he addresses NALEO," he said, when pressed again.
Romney avoided immigration in May the last time he spoke to a big Hispanic organization. He talked instead about education.
Erika Andiola, 24, an illegal immigrant living in Arizona who came from Mexico at age 11, said she hoped Romney and the Republicans would talk about immigration.
"We need to know what they want to do with us," she said at a news conference by the "United We Dream Network," an organization for young immigrants. "We want answers."
Obama seized momentum on immigration last week by announcing a policy change that will allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who were brought into the United States as children to avoid being shipped home.
The policy allows Obama to draw a sharp contrast between himself and his Republican opponent in the November 6 presidential election. The former Massachusetts governor will struggle to win over Hispanic voters in swing state.
Romney accused Obama of playing politics with the timing of his announcement. "If he really wanted to make a solution that dealt with these kids or with illegal immigration in America, then this is something he would have taken up in his first 3-1/2 years, not in his last few months," Romney said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
But he did not offer a plan of his own and would not say whether he would repeal Obama's policy shift if elected.
"I think it hurts Romney electorally big-time," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said.
"How Romney handles this situation is clearly going to make or break this election. Because if you look at the map, essentially this takes Colorado and Nevada and it makes them significant reaches," O'Connell said.
Overall, polls show Obama enjoys an advantage of about 75 percent to 25 percent over Romney among Latino voters. Experts generally estimate that a Republican needs about 40 percent of votes from Hispanics to capture the presidency.
Obama's announcement potentially protects 800,000 young illegal immigrants from deportation for at least two years and seems to have caught Romney flat-footed just as he was rising in polls and scoring points by attacking the White House's handling of the weak economy.
"Flat-footed dramatically understates it," said Democratic strategist Geoffrey Garin, who said Romney had taken a very hard line on immigration during the Republican primary race.
"Hispanics saw and heard him participating in the sort of anti-immigrant pile-on and he came out of that process with sort of a long list of quotes and positions that will live on until the general election," Garin said.
The Obama immigration shift also effectively killed off a plan by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who is being vetted as a possible Romney vice presidential pick, to offer the children of illegal immigrants the chance to stay legally in the country.
Obama's team pressed home as Romney's camp stumbled. His campaign distributed a list of journalists' comments from Twitter that were critical of the aborted Romney conference call.
"I think he's hopelessly twisted up on this issue. He plainly exploited this issue to try to win the Republican nomination and ran to the right," Obama's campaign adviser David Axelrod told reporters.
Obama received a boost with the release of a Bloomberg poll Wednesday that showed the president ahead of Romney by 13 points, a far wider lead than other recent surveys.
On immigration, polls show most Americans have a relatively moderate view on the issue. A Bloomberg survey showed Obama's immigration policy shift was favored 2-1 by all likely voters, 64 percent to 30 percent.
Republicans often clamor for more law enforcement before considering any loosening of immigration rules for the estimated 12 million people who are in the United States illegally.
Romney's stance on immigration could be further complicated when the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling, expected within days, on an Arizona law that requires police to determine immigration status if they arrest someone they think might be in the country illegally.
Romney endorsed the law during the primaries, and said it would be a model for the nation as a whole, but it is fiercely unpopular among Latino voters who view it as racial profiling.
Obama is scheduled to address the NALEO meeting on Friday, a day after Romney's appearance.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu)