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McCain's Rise May Upset Democrats' Western Strategy

That "is a dramatic and scary development for the Republicans," NDN President Simon Rosenberg said.

"Ya es Hora, Ve y Vota!," a national campaign sponsored by labor unions, Latino groups and Spanish-language media outlets, is helping tens of thousands of Latinos to apply for citizenship and register to vote.

The group's organizers cannot advocate a particular candidate, but their expectations are clear: "The issue of immigration has put the West in play," said Ben Monterroso, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizer responsible for Arizona, Colorado and Nevada. "A lot of people are waiting to vote for someone who will not play politics with this issue but will offer real solutions."

McCain, whose name sits beside that of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, has consistently won a majority of Latinos in his home state. And he countered the more heated rhetoric of his competitors for the GOP nomination with a declaration that illegal immigrants are all "children of God."

"They'd better look past the mountains and to the Pacific," chuckled Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I think John McCain is the Democrats' worst nightmare come true."

"He's definitely showed us that he's persistent," Lopez Ramirez acknowledged. "This is dear to his heart, and he believes in it. Why else would he be taking so many hits from his own party?"

Many Democrats are not so sure. Last year, when McCain was taking a pounding from his party's right wing on immigration, he virtually disappeared as Senate Democrats and Republicans tried to hash out a compromise immigration bill, said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), citing a Spanish saying, "Between that which you say and that which you do, there is a big gulf."

What McCain is saying has changed. Whereas once he firmly said that no immigration legislation could work unless it twinned tougher border enforcement with a guest-worker program and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he now maintains that sealing the border must come first.

In a closed-door meeting with House Republicans last week, he again assured conservatives that he had gotten the message. He had been beaten up badly on the immigration issue, participants said he told them, and understands that the nation's borders must be sealed and independently certified as under control before the next president even considers any further steps.

Some Latino Democrats said that is almost worse than the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the Republican Party.

"When they went to him and said he had to back a [no same-sex] marriage amendment, he said no. When they said campaign finance reform, he said no. When they said torture, he said no," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who worked with McCain on immigration legislation. "On this one, he didn't wait. He said yes. Everybody gets this."

Regardless of McCain's rhetoric, the actions of Republicans down the ticket could still mobilize Latinos. "The Republicans have done a hell of a job organizing Latinos away from the Republican Party," said Eliseo Medina, an SEIU organizer in Texas. "There's a Spanish saying, 'Tell me who you're with, and I'll tell you who you are.' McCain is hanging out with these guys."

"We're running against the Republican Party," Grijalva said, "and, like it or not, the good senator will be the titular head of that ticket."

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