McCain, Obama Court Hispanics

Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama address the League of United Latin American Citizens. Democrats aim to increase Hispanic turnout, while Republicans hope to build on the inroads George W. Bush made among Hispanic voters in 2004.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour with politics and the presidential candidates' efforts to win Latino voters. So far, polls show a strong majority of Latinos leaning toward Barack Obama.

Today, Obama and John McCain addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC here in Washington, D.C. Immigration and border security are key issues. McCain spoke to LULAC today about recent approaches to overhauling immigration laws.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Many Americans, with good cause, didn't believe us when we said we would secure our borders so we failed in our efforts. We must prove to them that we can and will secure our borders first while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: Barack Obama addressed the group later in the day.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I want to give Senator McCain credit because he used to buck his party on immigration. He fought for comprehensive immigration reform. A lot of the bills that I had co-sponsored, he was the lead. I admired him for it. But when he started running for his party's nomination, he abandoned his courageous stance and said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote.

BLOCK: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is at the event. And Mara, tell us more about the group LULAC and what's going on at the event today.

MARA LIASSON: LULAC is the League of United Latin American Citizens. It's a big, mainstream Hispanic organization. There are hundreds of activists here. It's right in the middle of the political spectrum, I think, if you consider La Raza on the left and maybe the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on the right. It's right in the middle, it's filled with activists, and both candidates certainly want their votes.

BLOCK: An we heard both candidates just now addressing the immigration issue. Interesting to hear Barack Obama taking McCain on directly before this audience, which he must know is a key constituency in November.

LIASSON: Yes. Obama went on the attack. He's been very aggressive about an issue that McCain has really been strongly identified with. But Obama sees an opening here. Right now, in some polls, he's leading among Hispanic voters 2-1. And when he said that John McCain abandoned his stance - he said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation - he was referring to a moment in a Republican primary debate where McCain was pressed on this and said, if your bill came up for a vote, would you vote for it? And he kept on saying, well, that's a hypothetical question, it won't come up, we failed. And the questioner was very persistent, and McCain really committed one of the most basic errors of a candidate - he answered a hypothetical question, and he said no. And now Obama's going to punish him for it.

BLOCK: And Obama's saying there that McCain switched his positions. Now, as - if you look at the candidates' positions on immigration, is there a major gap between what Barack Obama is saying and what John McCain is saying?

LIASSON: There really isn't, and you can't really say that McCain switched his positions. What McCain did is the bill that he proposed and sponsored had a path to legalization for undocumented aliens. Also, it had some border security measures. He hasn't given up on the path to citizenship, but now he says we have to secure the border first because if we don't, Americans won't support comprehensive immigration reform. Both these candidates are for the same thing - a path to citizenship that doesn't reward people who came in illegally. But McCain did change his emphasis, and Obama sees that as an opening especially with this key battleground demographic group of voters, and he's pushing on it.

BLOCK: When Hispanic voters are polled on what issues are most important to them, what is the main issue?

LIASSON: Well, it's interesting. Immigration is not necessarily number one. Like all voters, the economy is number one. Hispanic voters also care about Iraq; they are disproportionately represented in the Armed Forces. So immigration isn't necessarily the number one, but it certainly was one issue where Barack Obama felt that he could press an advantage over John McCain. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: According to the Department of Defense, Hispanics are actually underrepresented in the active forces as a whole, compared to their numbers in the civilian population.]

However, in the latest Pew poll, I should tell you that immigration is one of the very, very few issues where McCain has an advantage over Obama. Forty-four percent to 39 percent of people chose McCain on the issue of immigration. That's unusual this year that there's any issue where McCain polls better.

BLOCK: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson at the convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens here in Washington. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Melissa.

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McCain-Obama Battle For Latino Voters Accelerates

Map: Latinos in Battleground States i i

Four presidential battleground states have sizable Latino populations. Click enlarge for details. Lindsay Mangum/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum/NPR
Map: Latinos in Battleground States

 

Lindsay Mangum/NPR

Hispanics are a fast-growing segment of the population — and a very hot political property.

President Bush made serious inroads with this traditionally Democratic group. In the 2008 presidential election, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain and his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, both are bidding for their support.

The increasingly aggressive battle for Hispanic voters accelerated when President Bush first sought the White House in 2000. And it continued after his election, when, in February 2001, he traveled to Mexico and had a news conference at a ranch owned by President Vicente Fox. "Mexico is the first foreign country I have visited as president, and I intended it to be that way," he said then. "Our nations are bound together by ties of history, family, values.... "

Many Hispanics later complained that Latin America and issues such as immigration fell from the Bush administration priority list after the Sept. 11 attacks. But in 2004, President Bush won some 40 percent of the Latino vote — a major accomplishment for a Republican. Many in the party hoped it represented the beginning of a sea change.

Issues Energizing Voters

Mark Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center, which tracks this demographic, says it is not a homogenous group. Hispanics from Mexico are distinct from those from Central America, who are different from Cuban-Americans in Florida. But Lopez adds that whatever their differences, this year there are 18 million eligible Latino voters — an increase of 2 million from four years ago.

Lopez says two things seem to have energized these voters. One is the emergence of immigration reform as a major issue.

"If you look at the protest marches in 2006, you saw a lot of people holding up signs and a lot of groups pushing for 'Let's become citizens. Let's get registered. Let's express our votes. Today we march. Tomorrow we vote,' " he says.

And there was the long and hard-fought Democratic primary battle, which included well-organized and well-funded registration drives targeting Hispanics.

Economy, War Among Top Worries

Several things threaten the inroads that Republicans have made with Latino voters under President Bush. One is that polls show Hispanics list worries about the economy and the war among their top issues.

"Hispanics, like all Americans, are heavily against the war in Iraq. And, secondly, the economy is devastating Hispanics, who by and large are lower income, more middle class, more working class," says Federico Pena, who served in Bill Clinton's Cabinet and now heads Latino outreach for the Obama campaign.

Ana Navarro, co-chairwoman of the Latino voter advisory committee for McCain, argues that Hispanics will be receptive to McCain's message on family values — and on trade — as well as the importance he places on relations with Latin America. She points to the senator's trip to Colombia and Mexico last week as an example of that.

But Navarro acknowledges that the immigration debate has hurt the image of Republicans in many Latinos' eyes.

"Let's be frank here: The immigration debate at times has been offensive and hurtful to Hispanics and immigrants. But John McCain has never once in his life engaged in negative, offensive rhetoric against any group," she says.

Reaching Out

Navarro notes that for all of McCain's popularity with Latinos back home in Arizona, the campaign would be more than happy to match the 40 percent that President Bush captured in the last election. To that end, McCain has been running ads speaking to the patriotism of Latinos.

"My friends, 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. When you go to Iraq or Afghanistan today, you're going to see a whole lot of people who are of Hispanic background," McCain says in one ad.

Obama, meanwhile, has used a state-of-the-art, grass-roots organization to reach out. Outside groups have also joined in on the Internet. A video produced independently by Latino musicians and actors features an Obama jingle and a message to register to vote.

Polls show that for all the problems Obama had with Latino voters during his battle with Hillary Clinton in the primaries, he is getting their support for November.

Much of the focus will be in swing states, such as Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. Each has a sizable Latino population. And any candidate who exceeds expectations among Hispanics there could be the one who wins the White House.

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