As I suspected, Mitt Romney’s denunciation of Newt Gingrich’s sensible and humane suggestion that we shouldn’t deport long-time illegal residents of the United States is quickly emerging as a flashpoint in the campaign.

The Obama campaign quickly convened a conference call to hammer Mitt Romney over the issue, and linked it to other Romney positions that that the campaign hopes will alienate Latino voters. It’s a sign that the Obama campaign is aggressively moving to gain a head start in energizing Latinos, whose engagement in next year’s election remains uuncertain.

“He is the most right wing presidental candidate on this issue in recent presidential history,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said on the conference call. “He attacked Speaker Gingrich for saying we should have a humane immigration policy. He’s now opposed to comprehensive immigration reform. He’s opposed to the DREAM act. He wants to roll back the investments we made in Pell Grants that have [given] hundreds of thousands of Hispanic children the opportunity for a higher education. He wants to roll back the Affordable Care Act and their health care benfits.”

The larger political context here is interesting. Various analysts have concluded that shifting demographics will make the minority share of the vote even larger this time than it was in 2008. And some suggest that with Obama still struggling among blue collar whites in the industrial swing states, the pressure is on him to hold onto key western states, such as Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, where large Latino populations could make a key difference.

Also: The Obama campaign will highlight Romney’s move to the right, combined with his refusal to say whether he supports deportation, to advance the larger argument that Romney is lacking in core principles and will say and do anything to win.

“Gov. Romney is somebody who once claimed to support comprehensive immigration reform,” LaBolt said. “But now he’s a candidate that’s absolutely demagogued the issue of immigration in a politically craven way because he believes that it serves his political interests.”

Between this and yesterday’s false Romney ad attacking Obama on the economy — and the massive Dem pushback to it — it’s hard to avoid a sense that we’re approaching something like full general election engagement between the two campaigns, even though the GOP primary voting hasn’t even started.