President Obama holds a wide lead among Hispanic voters when matched against potential Republican challengers, even as widespread opposition to his administration’s stepped-up deportation policies act as a drag on his approval ratings among that group, according to a new poll.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, revealed a general-election weakness for Republicans among an increasingly influential voting bloc — with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry each winning less than one-fourth of the Hispanic vote in hypothetical matchups against Obama.

Obama leads Romney by 68 percent to 23 percent and Perry by 69 percent to 23 percent among Hispanic voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points for the sample.

The president’s strong position with Latino voters comes even as Hispanic adults overall express disapproval with the way his administration is handling deportations of illegal immigrants, by 59 percent to 27 percent. (The margin of error among adults is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.)

The United States has deported more than 1 million illegal immigrants under Obama, removing an average of nearly 400,000 per year — a record rate that has drawn criticism from immigrant advocates who charge that the policy is tearing apart families and punishing harmless workers. Administration officials have said they are targeting criminals for deportation.

Obama’s job approval rating has dropped among Hispanic voters by nine percentage points since last year, the survey found, dipping to 54 percent — in part because of a 15-point drop among Hispanic Democrats. His job approval among voters overall stood at 49 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month, meaning the president remains more popular among Hispanics than with the broader electorate.

“Many Latinos are aware that deportations are up, and among them the president’s approval rating is lower,” said Mark H. Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “However, even among them, the president wins in head-to-heads against Romney and Perry.”

The findings suggest major challenges ahead for Republican strategists, many of whom believe the party cannot win the White House unless it slices into Obama’s support among Hispanics.

In the latest available data from Gallup, Obama’s numbers among Hispanics have recovered alongside a rise among the broader public. Fully 60 percent of all Hispanic adults interviewed by Gallup in late December said they approved of Obama’s overall job performance, a high in polls back to May.

The support level for Romney and Perry lags behind the 31 percent share won by party nominee John McCain in 2008. Obama won 67 percent of Hispanics that year.

At the time, many Republican strategists said failing to improve that number in the future could doom Republican presidential contenders in battleground states with fast-growing Hispanic populations, such as Colorado and Florida. They set a 2012 goal of winning 40 percent, about the same level of support among Hispanics won by President George W. Bush in his 2004 reelection victory.

Some Republicans have expressed concerns that Hispanics would feel alienated by hard-line rhetoric against illegal immigration in the GOP primary campaign — particularly from Romney, who has used the issue to attack Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich from the right. They worry that the debate might squander an opportunity to take advantage of Obama’s declining support among Hispanics, particularly centrists and conservatives.

The survey shows Romney’s vulnerabilities, however. Even among voters who disagree with Obama’s deportation policies, a clear majority backs the president over Romney. Obama wins more than one-fourth of Hispanic voters who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party.

The survey of Hispanic adults and voters, conducted Nov. 9 through Dec. 7, did not measure support for Gingrich or other current potential Republican nominees. (A survey in early November by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Gingrich cut further into Obama’s lead among Hispanics, with Obama leading 61 percent to 36 percent, though the sample size was small and the error margin high.)

Gingrich, who has courted leaders of the Hispanic community for years through his political and business enterprises, has staked out a softer line on illegal immigrants than Romney, saying that many with deep family or community ties should be granted legal status and permitted to stay in the United States.

The new Pew poll found that immigration is “extremely important” for a third of Hispanic voters, although that issue trails jobs, education, health care, taxes and the federal budget deficit on that list.

Democrats retain a strong advantage when Hispanics are asked which party they identify with, with two-thirds of voters picking Democrats and one-fifth siding with the GOP.

Neither party secured a majority when voters were asked which one showed more concern for Hispanics, with 45 percent picking the Democrats and 12 percent picking the Republicans. In 2010, 6 percent picked Republicans.

Some Republicans think that tapping Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a Cuban American son of immigrants, as the party’s vice presidential nominee could offer a quick fix to their Hispanic problem. At the moment, the poll found, Rubio remains largely unknown to Hispanics nationally, with a majority saying they had not heard of him, couldn’t rate him or didn’t know whether they viewed him favorably.

Polling director Jon Cohen and
polling analyst Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.