Recognizing the growing political power of the nation’s largest minority, John McCain and Barack Obama both sought to woo Latinos in back-to-back speeches on Saturday—and it’s clear each candidate has some work to do to earn their favor.
McCain must reassure Hispanic voters that he remains committed to an immigration reform package that includes a pathway to citizenship.
After suffering politically in 2007 for his support of legislation that critics derided as “amnesty,” McCain reversed course during the GOP primary and said it was imperative to secure the borders first. At a debate in January, McCain said he would even oppose his own legislation if it were to be voted on again.
Obama must overcome a deep chasm in his own party, in whose primary Hispanics overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton. Obama remains largely unknown in a community that plainly would have preferred his rival.
Appearing before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) in Washington Saturday, each tried to assuage these concerns—and court a community whose votes could prove pivotal in Florida and a handful of western battleground states.
McCain, speaking first, promised the approximately 700 attendees that resurrecting the bipartisan immigration bill he helped shape last year would be at the forefront of his agenda as president.
“It would be my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow,” McCain said in response to a question about whether he would pursue a comprehensive approach beyond his campaign promise to secure the border in his first 100 days in office.
Seeking to win some points for his initial support for a comprehensive immigration bill, McCain noted that his position “wasn’t very popular…with some in my party.”
And, in remarks that could inflame those Republican border hawks, the Arizona senator made clear he would not just seek to secure the border first, as he promised in the primary.
“We have to secure our borders—that’s the message,” McCain said. “But we also must proceed with a temporary worker program that is verifiable and truly temporary.”
Obama, who has been dogged by his own shifts to the middle in moving from the liberal-dominated Democratic primary to the general election, wasted no time in reminding the audience of McCain’s political pivot.
"He was a champion of comprehensive reform, and I admired him for it," Obama said after a loud ovation that included a chant of his last name. "But what he didn’t mention is that when he was running for his party’s nomination, he walked away from that commitment."
The McCain campaign, however, said after the speech that Obama had actually been an impediment to the carefully-crafted immigration compromise.
“Barack Obama voted for five ‘poison pill’ amendments designed by special interests to kill the immigration reform deal,” said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers. “These efforts were strongly opposed by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), the Democrat who led the fight for immigration reform, because he understood they would have the effect of ending the bipartisan work toward immigration reform.”
Both in his speech and behind the scenes Obama sought to bolster his own relationship with the key voting bloc.
He opened and closed his remarks with Spanish phrases and hinted at the outset that he was working to keep the many Hispanic Clinton supporters in the Democratic fold.
“I had a wonderful conversation a couple of days ago with some Hispanic leaders who had been great supporters of Sen. Clinton,” Obama noted in an off-the-text remark that included the name of popular former San Antonio Mayor and Clinton administration HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros.
And, seeking to assure the group that he was no stranger to the Hispanics and would look out for their intrests, Obama reminded them of his work with immigrants as a community organizer, civil rights attorney and Senator.
“And it’s because of that 20-year record of partnership with your communities that you can trust me when I say that I will be your partner in the White House and that I will be your champion when I am in the White House,” Obama promised.
In a private meeting with about 15 Latino leaders during McCain’s address, he made a similar pledge.
The group pressed Obama to be more precise on immigration, according to Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), who was present with other elected officials from states such as New Mexico, Virginia and Maryland.
Grijalva said Obama evinced “a little frustration” in explaining his immigration views. “You constantly hear that he’s not strong on immigration,” Grijalva observed. “I think that’s the residue from the primary.”
But whatever the earlier preferences of Latinos, the congressman noted, the Democratic contest is over.
“Barack Obama is the only choice we have available,” said Grijalva, who initially backed John Edwards before getting behind Obama.
To make that choice more appealing, Obama plans to significantly ramp up his courting of Hispanic voters.
Temo Figueroa, Obama’s national field director, is broadening his portfolio to include Latino outreach.
Figueroa said he was hoping to hire some of those in attendance at the conference and that they ultimately wanted to bring on about 500 Latinos as part of their 2,000-plus regiment of staffers being deployed to key states across the country. Hispanics have been installed as state directors in Colorado and New Mexico, two states that were in the Republican column in 2004 but are expected to be hotly contested this year.
In early July the Obama campaign will kick off a paid media effort targeting Latinos that they hope to keep up all the way to Election Day, according to Figueroa. The plan is to air Spanish-language ads featuring Latino leaders speaking on Obama's behalf.
President Bush won a record 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004. But a spate of polls taken nationally and in swing states since the start of the general election suggest that many Hispanics will fall in the Democratic column this year. A survey taken earlier this month for NBC/Wall Street Journal found Obama leading McCain 62-28 among Latinos nationally.
Members of the McCain campaign, however, argue that the polls show only a partisan leaning, not how Latino voters will assess the two candidates as individuals.
“The reality is that the majority of Latinos are Democrats or lean Democratic,” said Ana Navarro, a Floridian and advisor on Latino issues to the McCain campaign. “We need to remind them of who John McCain is. Polls are nothing but a snapshot in time. We have four months to brand McCain.”
Navarro says that McCain’s messaging to Latinos will focus heavily on his leadership on the immigration measure.
But, as evidenced by Obama’s attack Saturday, Democrats intend to make the case to Hispanics that McCain softened his stance on immigration-related issues during the heat of the GOP primary.
“First he was with us but then he abandoned not only the immigration bill but [also] the DREAM Act,” said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The DREAM Act is a bill that would allow high-achieving high school students who are long-term illegal immigrants and want to serve in the armed forces or attend college to gain legal status. McCain was originally a co-sponsor of the bill but said last fall that he had come to oppose the measure because “he got the message” that voters wanted border security first.
“Once the public understands [McCain is] a flip-flopper the mirage is going to go away,” said Baca.
Navarro said that McCain still supports the principles of the immiration bill and the DREAM Act but that he believes the political climate will be more hospitable only after border control is enhanced, something the candidate himself made clear in his remarks Saturday.
“We will not succeed in the Congress of the United States until we convince a majority of the American people that we have border security,” McCain said in answering a question on the topic for a second time.
McCain wasn’t alone in softening his posture on a sensitive issue with Hispanics in an effort to strengthen his political standing.
In 2006, Obama voted for the implementation of a 700-mile border fence along sections of the Mexican border and caught some grief from Latinos for doing so.
Saturday he downplayed the value of a fence.
“We do have to have better border security,” Obama said. “Although what I want to do is entirely review what we’ve been doing because if we think that a wall is the sole solution to the problem than we’re not thinking it through.”
He deemed a fence on selected areas of the border as logical but said that other approaches to the problem were more important.