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Candidates Pushing Hard for the Latino Vote

By Perry Bacon Jr. and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 14, 2008

SAN DIEGO, July 13 -- Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are aggressively courting Latino voters in the early stages of their election contest, as the presumptive Republican nominee looks to hold on to Latino-heavy states, such as New Mexico, that Obama hopes to turn blue.

"Make no mistake about it: The Latino community holds this election in its hands," Obama said Sunday at a conference of the National Council of La Raza, one of the nation's largest Latino civil rights groups. "Some of the closest contests this November are going to be in states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico -- states with large Latino populations."

The two men face very different tasks. Obama is seeking to solidify his standing among a group that has historically leaned Democratic, whereas McCain is working to convince Latinos that he deserves their support, based on his stance on immigration and experience as a border-state lawmaker.

McCain will address La Raza on Monday, the third time in as many weeks the candidates will have courted Latino activists. They spoke last Tuesday in Washington at a conference of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and last month to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

On Friday, McCain's campaign began running ads appealing to Latinos in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, key states that backed President Bush in 2004 but which Obama hopes to pick off with a strong Latino turnout. The Democrat is running ads in those states as well, but none yet with Latino themes.

"If you have any doubt about whether you can make a difference, just remember how, back in 2004, 40,000 registered Latino voters in New Mexico didn't turn out on Election Day," Obama said Sunday in San Diego. He noted that Democratic candidate John F. Kerry "lost that state by fewer than 6,000 votes -- 6,000 votes."

Despite becoming the nation's largest minority group over the past decade, Hispanics lag behind other groups in voting. According to the Census Bureau, 58 percent of eligible Hispanics were registered to vote in 2004, compared with 75 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 69 percent of blacks.

A recent Gallup poll showed Obama leading McCain by 30 percentage points among Latinos, a larger margin than Kerry's 20 points over Bush in 2004 exit polls. But Obama lost badly to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) among Hispanics in Democratic primaries and told reporters Saturday night on the way to San Diego, "I'm not as well known in that community as I would like to be."

In his speech on Sunday, Obama cast his positions on spending more federal money to expand health care, create jobs and improve education as important for the Latino community as well as other Americans, and discussed his support for creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. His aides said they plan to start running ads on Spanish-language radio stations next week in key states and will keep them going through November.

McCain's aides acknowledge that he is trailing Obama among Latino voters, but they view this effort as crucial to making inroads so that he can hold on to states such as Florida and Colorado.

In a news conference with reporters Sunday, former U.S. treasurer Rosario Marin, a McCain supporter, said she is confident some independent and Democratic Latinos will back the Republican once they learn more about his record.

"The ones that know what the senator has done in this regard, they're very supportive of him," Marin said, referring to his work on immigration.

McCain's first televised ad in the general election -- named after his military identification number 624787 -- featured a Spanish-language narrator who testified to his courage as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

The commercial, which ran in New Mexico, featured archival footage of McCain -- with much of his body wrapped in a cast -- being interviewed by a captor. The campaign has run several other ads in which McCain praises Latinos for having entrepreneurial spirit and for being willing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan with only green cards. During one of his speeches, the camera pans to Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), an opponent of illegal immigration, who looks on sulkily as McCain extols Hispanics' contributions to U.S. society.

"I want you the next time you're down in Washington, D.C., to go to the Vietnam War Memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You'll find a whole lot of Hispanic names," McCain says in a new spot airing in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. "When you go to Iraq or Afghanistan today, you're going to see a whole lot of people who are of Hispanic background."

The campaign has directed its appeals to Latinos to reflect that its members span the political spectrum. A radio ad running in Florida woos conservative Cubans with a testimonial from a former prisoner of Fidel Castro, and a Nevada radio commercial features an announcer who notes that when Latinos go shopping in the supermarket or fill up their gas tank, "We're not Republicans, Democrats or independents -- we're Hispanics, and we're suffering together in these uncertain economic times. We need someone with a good economic plan. This someone is John McCain."

This week, McCain is to embark on a one-week "opportunity" tour in which he will talk about "bolstering the opportunities across the country for people of all constituencies," an aide said. He will conduct several interviews with Hispanic media outlets, and he will have breakfast Tuesday with Latino small-business owners in Albuquerque.

But McCain's aides remain frustrated that his work on immigration has not translated to greater popularity among Latinos. Conservative media outlets and pundits sharply criticized McCain for the immigration bill he co-authored with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

But McCain's decision to "secure our borders first" before pushing for comprehensive immigration-law change, a position he adopted after coming under fire from fellow Republicans during the primaries, has alienated some Hispanics.

Obama also has touted his work on last year's immigration bill: Although not a key player like McCain, he participated in the process.

Eilperin reported from Seattle. Staff writer Dan Balz in Washington contributed to this report.

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