Candidates Court Latino Leaders

Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain may be in for a struggle for Hispanic voters. A Gallup Poll this month showed 29 percent supporting him.
Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain may be in for a struggle for Hispanic voters. A Gallup Poll this month showed 29 percent supporting him. (By Lm Otero -- Associated Press)
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) yesterday accused Republican Sen. John McCain of retreating from a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws that the senator from Arizona had championed in Congress, contending that his rival for the White House "walked away" from his own legislation to win the GOP presidential primary.

"When he was running for his party's nomination, he walked away from that commitment," Obama told a gathering of Latino elected officials at which the two candidates appeared separately to woo Hispanic voters.

McCain, who spoke prior to Obama's appearance, insisted that immigration "will be my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow." He said the federal government eventually should create a method for immigrants living in the United States illegally to become citizens, in addition to strengthening security measures to prevent foreigners from sneaking across the borders.

The broad immigration bill that stalled in Congress -- co-sponsored by McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- would have addressed both goals at once. But beginning last fall, McCain began to say political reality dictates that stricter enforcement must come first. The legislation "wasn't very popular . . . in my party," he acknowledged yesterday. "We will not succeed in the Congress until we can convince the majority of the American people we have border security."

A McCain campaign spokesman shot back at Obama's characterization of the issue. "It's quite audacious for Barack Obama to question John McCain's commitment to immigration reform when it was Obama himself who worked to kill the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform compromise last year," the spokesman, Brian Rogers, said in a statement. It also said Obama had voted for five amendments "designed by special interests to kill the immigration reform deal."

The sparring over immigration erupted as the two parties' presumptive nominees made one of their first back-to-back appearances at the same event in the general-election campaign. Their immediate audience was the several hundred members of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials convened this weekend at a downtown Washington hotel. But the candidates' messages were intended for Latinos around the country, who have emerged as the nation's second-largest minority group and could prove a pivotal constituency in the November elections.

During the long Democratic primary period, Obama drew significantly fewer votes from Hispanics than his main opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Recent polls suggest that Obama has far greater support within the group than McCain. A Gallup Poll this month found that 66 percent of Hispanics said they favored Obama, while 29 percent said they supported McCain -- far below the estimated 40 percent of Latinos who voted for President Bush four years ago in a record showing for a GOP presidential candidate.

That imbalance in support was evident in the ballroom where the two men spoke yesterday. McCain was interrupted three times by antiwar hecklers, and the warm applause he drew was eclipsed by long, boisterous cheering that greeted Obama when he took the stage a half-hour later.

McCain began his remarks by criticizing his rival for not agreeing to share the stage with him, a reference to the series of joint "town hall" meetings he has proposed, an invitation that Obama has sidestepped so far.

Each candidate sought to demonstrate that Latinos in particular would be beneficiaries of his policies on a variety of issues, including health care, education, trade and the Iraq war, in addition to immigration. For his part, Obama tried repeatedly in his remarks to show that Latino and African American voters -- groups whose political interests have not always been aligned -- have a common cause in his election.

Despite yesterday's barbs, McCain's and Obama's views on immigration overlap to some degree. Each supports stepped-up enforcement of the nation's borders, although Obama has been more critical of a fence along the Mexican border that the Bush administration wants to build. And both men, to varying extents, say illegal immigrants should be required to surmount certain hurdles before applying for citizenship and should wait in turn behind legal immigrants who often linger in limbo for years awaiting government review of their applications.

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