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Candidates talk up Latino connections

Question rival's commitment on immigration

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / July 9, 2008

WASHINGTON - In separate appearances before a Latino interest group, John McCain and Barack Obama yesterday challenged the other's commitment to last year's failed immigration compromise while presenting competing claims to kinship with one of the nation's fastest growing and highly contested blocs.

Both candidates turned to their strongest assets - their biographies and personal experience - to charm the League of United Latin American Citizens with declarations of a special rapport. Obama presented himself as the son of an immigrant joined in solidarity with Latinos in a civil rights struggle, while McCain contended that political roots in Arizona grounded his political priorities in turf home to one of the country's largest Latino populations.

Current polls give Obama a roughly 2-to-1 edge over McCain among Latino voters, a typical advantage for Democrats in recent presidential elections. Yet the aggressiveness with which both campaigns are courting them became evident in a renewed debate over immigration, an issue on which McCain and Obama broadly agree but that has become grounds for allegations of disingenuousness from both camps.

Last year, the two senators were part of a bipartisan group that negotiated a reform bill - to legalize immigrants currently in the United States, introduce a temporary-worker program, and heighten security along the country's southern border - that ultimately failed to pass the Senate.

"I want to give Senator McCain credit because he used to buck his party on immigration by fighting for comprehensive reform, and I admired him for it," Obama said at a hotel in Washington. "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."

Although McCain has said recently that he would continue to pursue such reforms as president, he promised yesterday to "secure our borders first."

McCain allies have described Obama's involvement in the reform legislation as half-hearted, and yesterday volunteers outside the ballroom where the candidate spoke distributed a list of five "poison-pill amendments" that they allege Obama supported with the goal of killing the bill.

Last week, on a trip planned in large part for Latino media in the United States, McCain traveled to Mexico and Colombia to argue for greater economic and security integration with Latin America. In Mexico City, McCain received a blessing at the Basilica of Guadalupe, a holy site for Catholic pilgrims, a visit that made less sense in a religious framework - McCain was raised as an Episcopalian and now worships at a Baptist church - than a political one.

The candidates' dueling assertions of affinity with Latinos have turned into a rough tussle for credibility with voters.

"There has to be a sense from the Latino-voter perspective that you get it," said Roger Salazar, a Democratic consultant who worked for Al Gore in 2000.

In the first direct contrast ad of the general election, now airing on Spanish-language radio in New Mexico and Nevada, a McCain ally introduces himself as a "proud Latino" and accuses Obama of opportunism in his outreach to the group.

"This election, it seems to me that the other candidate has just discovered the importance of the Hispanic vote," Frank Gamboa, McCain's roommate at the Naval Academy, says in Spanish. "So when it comes to our values and understanding Latinos this election, I know for John it's not political; it comes from the heart."

A similar rift emerged in the Democratic primaries, when Senator Hillary Clinton used a long familiarity with Latino politics - beginning with her work as a political organizer in south Texas in 1972 and extending through her experience in New York - to assert primacy over Obama with the bloc. Exit polls suggested that Clinton was beating Obama among Latinos nationwide; even in Obama's home state, Illinois, their vote was split equally.

"You could see McCain picking up where Hillary left off, more or less," said Rodolfo Espino, a political scientist at Arizona State University. "His message is: 'I have more of a tie to the Hispanic community, I have more of a connection,' which is what Hillary was saying."

Both sides acknowledge, as Obama said yesterday, that "this election could well be decided by Latino voters." He recounted a list of typically close general election states - Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico - where they could provide a crucial margin of victory.

Yet specialists say the candidates' identity-based appeals to Latinos could fail to acknowledge the demographic complexity of an electorate that encompasses both first-generation Salvadorans in the Virginia suburbs and fourth-generation Mexican-Americans in rural Texas.

"Latino voters are a relatively homogeneous voting bloc, but not to the extent that the African-American community is," said Espino. "What does it mean to say you understand the Latino experience?"

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