McCain Walks Tightrope On Immigration John McCain has long been the GOP presidential contender with the best shot of winning Latino voters, because he's long argued for a path to citizenship in any overhaul of immigration laws. But lately, he is also emphasizing border security to appeal to his party's conservatives.

McCain Walks Tightrope On Immigration

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Once upon a time, when John McCain was just one of many Republican presidential contenders, he was the Republican with the best prospect of winning Latino voters. That's because of his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But recently McCain has put new emphasis on border security and enforcement.

NPR's Carrie Kahn looks at the tightrope McCain is walking on this issue.

CARRIE KAHN: McCain's approach to comprehensive immigration changes cost him key support within the GOP's conservative base last year and nearly ended his presidential bid. So McCain retooled his message, put border security first, and bounced back in the primaries.

But his new priorities require a delicate balancing act in every immigration speech he makes. Here's McCain this week addressing the National Council of La Raza in San Diego, where he emphasized his independence from his party.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I never asked for any special privileges from anyone just for having done the right thing. But I do ask for your trust that when I say I remain committed to fair, practical and comprehensive immigration reform, I mean it.

KAHN: Cecilia Munoz, vice president of La Raza, appreciated the plea for trust, but says McCain's emphasis on border security turned her off.

Ms. CECILIA MUNOZ (La Raza National Council): He talked about comprehensive immigration reform, but always following but we got to make sure the borders are secure first. And that really suggests a two-part agenda, and I think there's real concern about that in the community.

KAHN: The La Raza speech was the senator's third appearance before such groups in as many weeks. Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, a longtime hawk on illegal immigration, says he gets turned off when he hears McCain say the words comprehensive immigration reform to these groups.

Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado): That's code for amnesty, and everybody knows it. He knows it, and the audience knew it.

KAHN: When it comes to immigration, John McCain has made enemies on both sides, but that doesn't mean he's stopped trying to attract voters in the middle, including Latinos.

Mr. MARK MASSEY (McCain Volunteer): My name is Mark. I'm a volunteer calling on behalf of the John McCain for president campaign. If you have a minute, I'd like to ask four really quick questions.

KAHN: At the McCain for president campaign office in suburban Denver, Colorado, Mark Massey and a handful of volunteers are calling registered voters in one of the state's largely Hispanic counties. Massey reads from a script.

Mr. MASSEY: Which of the following issues will be the key issue when you vote this November?

KAHN: National security, gas prices and the economy are on the list; immigration is not. Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli says immigration isn't the leading issue from any Hispanics, but it is a way to get them to the polls. He says many Hispanics may not trust McCain to deliver on his pledge to give illegal immigrants in this country a pathway to citizenship, but they do know he's been a maverick on the issue.

Mr. FLOYD CIRULI (Pollster): I do think he starts far more advantaged than any other Republican they could have nominated to make a credible case to give some votes.

KAHN: That's the message that Gil Cisneros, vice chairman of McCain's campaign in Colorado wants to get out to Hispanic voters.

Mr. GIL CISNEROS (Colorado Republican National Hispanic Assembly): He's walked his talk. He's been very supportive. He knows the Hispanic community well, being a senator from Arizona for many, many years. He's familiar with that. He just didn't come out of the woodwork and say, hey, I'm here to save the Hispanic community.

KAHN: Independent pollster Ciruli says in key battleground states like Colorado, McCain doesn't need to get most or even half of the Hispanic vote. He just needs to be competitive.

Mr. CIRULI: To reduce his margin of loss. He is probably the only Republican that was in the nomination race that can do that.

KAHN: And, Ciruli adds, since Barack Obama has almost the same stand as McCain on the issue, conservative Republicans for whom illegal immigration is a key factor don't have a viable option. On that point, Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo agrees.

Rep. TANCREDO: I'm going to vote for my party's pick, my party's nominee. Now, that's, you know, different than endorsing, I suppose.

KAHN: McCain is likely to find activists on Tancredo's end of the tightrope pulling especially hard when the Republican Party platform gets drafted next month, just before the GOP meets for its convention in St. Paul.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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