Obama Attacks McCain's Record On Immigration

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With an eye on the fast-growing Hispanic vote, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens on Tuesday. Both presumptive presidential nominees spoke about immigration.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

When Republican presidential candidate John McCain steps before Latino voters, one of his strengths is his record on immigration reform. McCain favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and he paid a heavy political price for that. His opponent, Barack Obama, looks at that same record and sees a weakness for Senator McCain. Obama emphasized that record as both candidates spoke before a meeting of Latino leaders; it was called LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: On immigration reform, Obama and McCain are very similar. Both favor a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Last year, McCain took on his own party to push a bill in the Senate that did just that. It didn't pass. And yesterday McCain explained why.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): 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)

LIASSON: Obama spoke later in the day and took a swipe at McCain, who while never abandoning his commitment to legalization has begun emphasizing the importance of securing the borders.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): 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 cosponsored 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.

LIASSON: Obama is referring to this Republican primary debate, when L.A. Times reporter Janet Hook pressed McCain repeatedly.

(Soundbite of debate)

Ms. JANET HOOK (L.A. Times): If your original proposal came to a vote in the Senate floor, would you vote for it?

Senator MCCAIN: It won't. It won't. That's why we went through the debate...

Ms. HOOK: But what if it did?

Senator MCCAIN: No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the borders secured first.

LIASSON: McCain committed the cardinal sin of politics. He answered a hypothetical question. And that allowed Obama to exploit McCain's ongoing political difficulty with this issue. McCain is still caught between the Republican Party's conservative base, which vehemently opposes a path to citizenship for illegals, and Hispanics, who generally favor comprehensive reform.

In his speech yesterday, Obama said he had reached across the aisle to fight for the same bill as McCain. But South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who worked with McCain on the immigration compromise, says Obama is exaggerating his role in the bipartisan efforts that led to the bill.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Senator Obama came in a couple of times, had a few good ideas, did the photo op, then when the bill came to the floor he folded like a cheap suit.

LIASSON: To the McCain campaign, Obama is trying to get credit for a bipartisan compromise that he supported but also tried to torpedo by sponsoring or voting for labor union-backed amendments that if passed would have weakened support for the bill.

Yesterday's sparring just underscored the importance of the Hispanic vote this year. During the Democratic primaries, Obama lost this vote to Hillary Clinton, indicating he might have a problem with Hispanics. But current polls don't show that at all. In the latest Wall Street Journal poll he leads McCain among Hispanics by nearly two to one. Still, voters like Carolina Pena came to LULAC yesterday undecided.

Ms. CAROLINA PENA: I actually voted for Obama in the primaries. I think I just kind of jumped on the bandwagon and sort of voted because I really like his personality. And I always say I like him with my heart and I like McCain with my head.

LIASSON: Pena's family waited five years to emigrate legally from Ecuador. She knows all about the political risks McCain took with his own party on immigration.

Ms. PENA: He has had kind of a long record of commitments to this population, which is very important. As far as Obama, I haven't seen very much. I haven't heard too much either.

LIASSON: Hispanic voters make up only 9 percent of the national electorate, but in battleground states like New Mexico they are as much as 37 percent. And that's why Obama said yesterday this election could very well be decided by Latino voters.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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McCain-Obama Battle For Latino Voters Accelerates

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Map: Latinos in Battleground States 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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