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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arturo Leyva has voted Democratic in the past, like many U.S. Hispanics. This year, the candidate catching his eye happens to be a Republican: John McCain.
"He has a lot to offer Hispanics, and I think I may vote for him," Leyva, 45, said at his cellular phone store in central Phoenix.
U.S. Hispanic support for the Republican Party, small but growing steadily over the past decade, has ebbed in the past year, following a bruising battle over illegal immigration.
Republican lawmakers last June sank a comprehensive immigration bill -- co-sponsored by McCain -- that would have created a path to citizenship for many of the 12 million mostly Hispanic undocumented immigrants in the United States.
However, Hispanic voters may see a sympathetic candidate in the Arizona senator, some analysts say.
"Hispanic voters have not yet gelled for any candidate yet. In this election it is up for grabs," said Paul Brace, a political science professor at Rice University.
"The interest among Hispanics may be more in John McCain the man than in the Republican Party," he added.
The Arizona senator faces either Democratic Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton in the November election, who have majority support among the 18 million or so eligible Latino voters, according to the most recent survey.
Hispanics like Leyva, 45, say they like the fact that McCain teamed with Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy on the immigration bill, which was later killed by the Republicans.
Others say they find common ground with his anti-abortion record -- an issue for Latinos, many of whom are Roman Catholics -- together with his support for small businesses and the U.S. military, in which many Hispanics serve.
"His values are the same as, rather similar to, our values," said Ramon Perez, 42, an electrician in Los Angeles who has voted Democratic but now is weighing his options.
"I will vote for Hillary, and if not her, then maybe McCain."
In the last general election four years ago, exit polls found that Hispanic turnout for President George W. Bush picked up by several points over his first win in 2000, although Hispanic support subsequently eroded.
A report by the Pew Hispanic Center in December, before McCain emerged as the Republican front-runner, found that just 23 percent of Hispanic registered voters called themselves Republicans -- 5 points fewer than in 2006.
McCain's ability to parlay Hispanics' tentative interest into votes may prove key in a close race in November, especially in swing states with significant Latino populations, such as Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida.
To that end, the Arizona Latino Republican Association, which urges voters to "Make the Switch - Democrat to Republican," is helping McCain to strengthen ties to Hispanics in his home state.
His campaign also launched a Web site reaching out to Hispanic voters on the Mexican Cinco de Mayo festival, or May 5th holiday, which is celebrated across the U.S. Southwest, and he is also planning to speak at the annual convention of Mexican-American advocacy group the National Council of La Raza in July.
While Hispanics may be more open to McCain, Brace cautioned that the Republican Party's record on issues including immigration may prove off-putting to some, a view born out among some Latino voters.
"He could be a nice guy, but I don't trust his party on immigration," said Clinton supporter Pedro Marquez, 46, the proprietor of a cowboy clothing store in downtown Phoenix.
Other Latinos who voted for Bush said a wobbly economy and an unresolved conflict in Iraq gave them doubts about backing a Republican this time around.
"The last two terms of Republican presidency didn't make very good decisions," said Lourdes Leon, 45, who said she had voted Republican in the past and owns a Mexican taqueria, grocery and bakery in Fairfield, Ohio.
"The deficit and the recession we live in right now is hard, and the war is not right, so I believe we need a change."
Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins in Fairfield, Ohio and Syantani Chatterjee in Los Angeles; Editing by Doina Chiacu