UPDATE 1-Immigration overshadows Romney rural bus tour
* Romney scrambles to react to immigration decision
* Supports similar plan but blasts Obama
* Reaching out to rural white voters
By Ros Krasny
MILFORD, N.H., June 15 (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's rural bus tour hit an unexpected bump on Friday as he scrambled to respond to President Barack Obama's decision to ease deportation rules for young illegal immigrants.
On a day when Romney wanted to emphasize the gap between the president and regular Americans, he instead was forced to step warily into the immigration debate after Obama announced new rules that would allow children of illegal immigrants to stay in the country on a temporary basis.
Romney criticized Obama's decision as a temporary patch, even as he backed a Republican proposal that bears many similarities to Obama's approach.
"I think the action that the president took today makes it more difficult to reach (a) long-term solution because an executive order is, of course, just a short-term matter - it can be reversed by subsequent presidents," Romney said in a brief statement to reporters.
Romney spoke on the first day of a bus tour that will reach out to rural, largely white voters who form an important pillar of the Republican Party. The November election is expected to be close, and analysts say the candidate who does a better job of rallying loyal supporters will have a big advantage.
Romney has been riding a burst of momentum as he has quickly united his party after a divisive battle for the Republican nomination. Polls show he has narrowed the gap with Obama and he raised more money than the incumbent Democrat last month.
Obama, meanwhile, has struggled to overcome a string of economic and political setbacks in recent weeks that adds up to the roughest patch of his presidency since last summer's debt-ceiling crisis.
POWER OF THE PRESIDENCY
But as president, Obama has crucial advantages that cannot be overlooked - not just the aura of the office but the power to change the debate with the stroke of a pen.
Obama's decision could spare about 800,000 young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children - a move likely to energize the Hispanic voters who helped lift him to victory in 2008. Obama has enthused other elements of his coalition in recent weeks by announcing his support for gay marriage and pushing to keep interest rates on student loans low.
The immigration move puts Romney in a tricky spot.
Courting conservatives in the Republican primary, Romney said illegal immigrants should voluntarily leave the country and criticized a rival, Texas Governor. Rick Perry, for backing policies that would allow children of illegal immigrants to get financial aid for college tuition in that state.
That uncompromising position could hurt him in Hispanic-heavy battleground states like Nevada and Florida.
Romney said he agreed with a plan advanced by Republican Senator Marco Rubio to grant children of illegal immigrants a visa, not amnesty - a position that bears similarities to Obama's approach.
If elected, Romney said he would do his best to find a "long-term solution that provides certainty and clarity for the people who come into this country through no fault of their own by virtue of the action of their parents."
Support for the Rubio plan could awaken misgivings from conservatives who view Romney's past as a moderate governor of liberal Massachusetts with suspicion.
Obama's move also could inspire a backlash from some Republicans that could further alienate Hispanics, a fast-growing voting bloc that favored Obama by a 3-to-1 ratio in 2008.
"I do think that there will be elements of the Republican Party ... that will rise to the bait and undoubtedly say something that gets at least into a permanent loop on MSNBC," the liberal cable TV channel, said Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson.
At the very least, Obama's move hijacked the agenda on the day that Romney returned to the New Hampshire farm where he started his presidential bid a year ago.
"Washington's big government agenda should not smother small-town dreams. In the America we love, every town counts," he told a crowd of about 800 in Stratham, the first stop of the day.
Romney hopes to keep the focus on Obama's stewardship of the economy, which many voters view as a disappointment. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found that although Obama maintains a narrow lead over Romney, more voters think that Romney would do a better job managing the economy.
Romney pointed out that wages have fallen and poverty has risen since Obama took office in January 2009, while the United States has taken on an unprecedented amount of debt that could compromise the living standards of future generations.
"If there has ever been a president who has failed to give the middle class of America a fair shot, it is Barack Obama," Romney said.
Although Romney remains a blank slate for many voters, the Obama campaign hopes to tie him to former President George W. Bush, who remains unpopular. Polls indicate that voters blame Bush more than Obama for the struggling economy.
"President Obama wants to do what we can to invest in the middle class, create more jobs and grow our economy. And Romney wants to take us back to the same failed policies that have benefited a few and helped to crash our economy in the first place," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, told reporters on a conference call organized by the Obama campaign.
Romney's bus tour will visit six states captured by Obama in the 2008 election that are considered winnable for Republicans this fall. Along the way, he will be joined by a roster of prominent Republicans who are seen as top contenders for a vice presidential position, including Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
It is Romney's first stint of intense campaigning after weeks in which fundraising events took priority.
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