* Choice could consolidate Obama appeal with Hispanics
* Opposition to Sotomayor could alienate Hispanic voters (Adds comment from Rush Limbaugh, paragraphs 9-11)
By Matthew Bigg
ATLANTA, May 26 U.S. President Barack Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court will prove a smart choice politically if it helps attract Hispanic voters to the Democratic party, analysts said on Tuesday.
Sotomayor, born to Puerto Rican parents, would be the first Hispanic on the court and the third woman to have served if the Senate approves her nomination.
Predictably, Hispanic groups welcomed her selection.
"The court is beginning to look like the multicultural mosaic that we are," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera Valladares, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Other Hispanic groups echoed his views.
Hispanics' votes proved crucial for Obama in defeating Republican candidate John McCain in battleground states such as Florida, New Mexico and Colorado in the 2008 presidential election, and the electoral power of the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population is only likely to increase.
Hispanics make up 15 percent of the U.S. population and 9 percent of the electorate and they voted around 68 percent for Obama in 2008, said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
"Appointing a Hispanic woman ... makes a lot of sense politically" in terms of consolidating Hispanic votes, said Abramowitz.
In the 2008 contest, McCain carried the white majority by 12 million votes but lost by around 9 million votes because of the edge Democrats hold among minorities, said Abramowitz who based his figures on exit polls.
A nomination fight could pay dividends for Republicans and influential conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called for a spirited campaign against Obama's choice, whom he described as an "anti-constitutionalist" and "reverse racist."
Even so, Limbaugh acknowledged that the fact that Sotomayor was a woman and a Hispanic might make it difficult for Senate Republicans to speak out against her.
"A majority of Republicans are going to be scared to death to oppose her ... because the Dems are going to use ... race, identity politics, minority status, feminism, to criticize me and any other Republican that dares oppose her," he said.
Republican strategist Rich Galen played down the potential impact of Sotomayor's nomination on Hispanic voters, arguing it will have faded by congressional elections in 2010.
But he said Republicans needed to improve outreach to Hispanics, particularly on immigration reform, one of the most pressing issues to Hispanic voters.
"Too many of the people in the public eye are trying to construct a Republican party that is almost religiously pure in terms of its political doctrine and that leads to an impossible situation of trying to win elections by getting more votes from fewer voters," Galen said.
Republicans should listen more attentively to the concerns of Hispanic voters and recognize that they are not a monolithic bloc, said Galen and Republican strategist John Feehery.
"Republicans need to understand that when they communicate on certain things they can come off as a bunch of bigots and that's not useful because it alienates voters," Feehery said.
He said Republicans will have to be careful in how they oppose the Hispanic woman who rose from humble beginnings.
They should mount a campaign against her with a "sophisticated strategy" that highlights her apparent judicial philosophy and court decisions while showing respect for her life story and accomplishments, he said. Otherwise, they risk turning off Hispanic voters.
"If it (Republican strategy on Sotomayor) is all about reviving the party's base it will not help get other votes and will be a long-term loser," he said.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, editing by Jane Sutton and Cynthia Osterman)