WASHINGTON – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s push for a Republican version of immigration legislation looks like the answer to the election-year prayers of the GOP — and Mitt Romney.

Rubio — telegenic son of Cuban exiles and potential vice presidential pick — is pulling together a bill that would allow young illegal immigrants to remain in the United States but denies them citizenship, an initial step in the drawn-out, divisive fight over immigration policy and the fate of the 11 million people here illegally.

The freshman senator calls his evolving legislation a conservative alternative to the DREAM Act — Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors measure. That Democratic-backed bill would provide a pathway to citizenship to children in the U.S. illegally if they attend college or join the military. The bill came close to passage in December 2010. “We have to come up with an immigration system that honors both our legacy as a nation of laws and also our legacy as a nation of immigrants,” Rubio said Tuesday.

A plan from Rubio, the GOP’s best-known Hispanic, could help Republicans make headway with the fastest growing minority group and its 21 million eligible voters, many concentrated in the contested presidential battleground states of Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.

Hispanics backed Barack Obama over Republican nominee John McCain, 67-31 percent, in the 2008 presidential race and they favored Democratic congressional candidates 60-38 percent in 2010, according to exit polling. A Pew Research Center survey out Tuesday showed Obama with a solid edge over Romney among Hispanic registered voters, 67-27 percent.

“We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party,” Romney said at a fundraiser in Florida on Sunday in which he insisted the GOP needs an alternative to the DREAM Act. He warned that a significant number of Hispanics backing Obama “spells doom for us,” according to NBC News.