McCain courts Fla. Hispanics
BY BETH REINHARD AND MARY ELLEN KLAS
Speaking to a predominantly Hispanic audience considered crucial to winning Florida, Republican John McCain vowed Monday to make immigration one of his ''first priorities'' if elected president and accused Democrat Barack Obama of spiking reforms in Congress.
McCain spearheaded a bill in 2006 -- reviled by the right wing of his own party -- that would have allowed illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. Obama supported the overall goal but backed controversial amendments that would have limited a guest worker program.
''The fact is that Sen. Obama proposed amendments that would have killed the legislation. I fought for it,'' McCain told more than 350 people at a town hall meeting.
McCain leveled the same charge in ads running in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, which Obama called ''dishonest'' in an interview Sunday on Spanish-language television.
Once pummeled for backing what critics tarred as ''amnesty,'' McCain has talked little about immigration during the general election campaign. He did not raise the issue Monday in Jacksonville, reliably Republican turf where he began a two-day tour that wraps up Tuesday in Tampa.
But Orlando offered a different audience. Central Florida is home to a fast-growing Hispanic community coveted for its political independence, unlike the staunchly Republican Cuban-American voters who have dominated Miami-Dade politics.
''Hispanic voters are going to be pivotal, and it will depend on how they interpret all the information the presidential candidates are presenting,'' said Orlando Allancastro, 30, a political activist and engineer who attended the event. "They need the facts, without any spin. Both sides might have lost sight of that, now that the chips are down and the pressure is on.''
McCain has received the bulk of the criticism for running misleading ads. And even he admitted Monday to reporters that Obama did not call Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin a ''pig'' -- as McCain's own campaign ads claim.
McCain argued in Orlando that the race would be more civil if Obama had agreed to do a series of joint town hall meetings.
''A lot of people don't like the tenor of this campaign,'' he said. "I know that if you stand on the same stage with your opponent, and you hear from the American people, and let the American people hear from you, a lot of that negative stuff disappears.''
With statewide polls showing McCain pulling ahead, Obama will campaign in Miami on Friday and Jacksonville on Saturday.
McCain was originally scheduled to begin his Florida visit at a ''pancake breakfast,'' but the campaign moved the event to the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena to accommodate more people. About 3,000 people came to a stadium that could hold five times as many people, drawing jeers from the Democratic Party after the event.
The bigger Republican draw -- McCain's new running mate, Alaska Gov. Palin -- is expected to campaign Sunday at The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in Central Florida.
On Monday, with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers looming in the headlines, McCain lashed out at the current administration's regulation of Wall Street as ''outdated'' and vowed to 'end the old boys' network'' that he said is crippling America's financial markets.
''People are frightened by these events,'' he said in Jacksonville. "The fundamentals of our economy are still strong, but these are very, very difficult times. I promise you we will never put America in this position again.''
His criticism was apparently aimed at the Bush administration, but McCain never mentioned the president by name except to say that he has ''been a good president'' who has made America safer.
Sitting behind McCain was the president's brother, former Gov. Jeb Bush, who was hired a year ago by Lehman Brothers as a financial consultant.
As governor, Bush served on the three-member State Board of Administration that agreed to let the state's retirement fund buy a series of mortgage-backed securities from Lehman Brothers that turned out to be troubled.
The subsequent steep drop in value prompted a $9 billion run on the fund last December by local governments who had invested their money in the SBA-managed fund. Lehman also manages two funds for the SBA, which is also heavily invested in some Lehman securities.
Bush refused to talk to reporters after the rally.
In a strong show of support from the Republican establishment, McCain was also joined by U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, Gov. Charlie Crist and former Gov. Bob Martinez.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden seized on McCain's more positive remarks in Jacksonville, determined to portray McCain as a clone of President Bush who is out of touch with the economy.
''Ladies and gentlemen, I could walk from here to Lansing, and I wouldn't run into a single person who thought our economy was doing well -- unless I ran into John McCain,'' Biden said, campaigning in Michigan.
In Orlando, McCain tried to deflect the criticism by hitting harder on the economy. Florida currently leads the nation in jobs lost.
''The American economy is in a crisis,'' he said. "People tonight will be sitting around the kitchen table trying to figure out how they're going to stay in their homes, how they're going to keep their jobs, how they're going to put food on the table.''
In response to a question, McCain addressed another issue of great concern to the largely Puerto Rican crowd -- statehood for their former home.
Residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in the general election.
''It seems to me that we should be guided by a referendum where the people of Puerto Rico decide what their future should be,'' McCain said at the town hall, hosted by Central Florida's oldest Puerto Rican group in a building like one of the island's colonial fortresses.
Audience members who wore ''Puerto Ricans for McCain'' pins said they were glad McCain raised the issue but added that he needs to lead the way.
''We've had referendums,'' said Miriam Lopez, 72, who went back and forth between Puerto Rico and Orlando for years and moved to Florida full-time five years ago.
"The president has to do something to give it credibility, so people take it more seriously.''