McCain tells Latinos, 'Examine my record'
RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.
Recently, I was on a Latino-themed radio show defending John McCain.
The defendant was accused of abandoning comprehensive immigration reform, turning his back on Latino supporters and associating with a bad crowd (read: Republicans).
I didn't give an inch. I was the only person in the discussion who actually knew McCain - from my stint 10 years ago as a reporter at a newspaper in Arizona - and I could attest to the fact that the senator had always gone to bat for Latinos.
At one point, another guest scolded me in frustration: "Look, it's not about John McCain. It's about the Republican Party!"
Exactly. McCain can defend himself. During a telephone interview the other day as he was traveling between campaign stops in Pennsylvania, he told me that he hopes Latinos will judge him on his own merits and not punish him for the sins of his party, which he readily acknowledges.
"During the immigration debate," he said, "it's very clear that a lot of the language and rhetoric that was used (by Republicans) made Latino citizens believe that we were anti-Latino."
One of the chief culprits was Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado. I asked McCain if there was any truth to the story that Tancredo, who ran for the Republican nomination, taunted him during the primaries by implying that McCain was pandering to Latinos.
"Yeah," McCain said, "we were in a restaurant and he just sent over a plate of nachos. What do you say to something like that? I just said, 'Thanks very much.' "
McCain puts these things in context. "Throughout our history, we have had people who stoked nativist instincts," he said.
Still, McCain's following among Latinos is evaporating. A poll by Zogby International found that 21 percent of Latinos support McCain, compared to 70 percent for Barack Obama; the Pew Hispanic Center ranked it 23 percent McCain and 66 percent Obama.
I asked McCain what in the world is going on. He blamed part of it on "heavy negative advertising" by his opponent.
"(Obama) has portrayed my position on the immigration issue as completely false," McCain said."
McCain hopes Latino voters focus on his support for small business, his pro-life position and his support of the military. And, of course, his record.
In his 2004 Senate re-election, McCain earned more than 70 percent of the Latino vote. The National Council of La Raza has an award it gives to elected officials who show courage in defense of the Latino community. McCain has won it twice.
Meanwhile, the comprehensive immigration reform bill that McCain co-sponsored with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy was attacked by members of his own party as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
When I asked what he says to those who accuse him of flip-flopping on comprehensive reform in settling for an enforcement-only approach, I caught a glimpse of McCain's temper.
"I say 'Stop!' We failed twice, despite efforts of weeks on the floor of the Senate, on a bipartisan basis with incredible support," he said. "Americans want the border secured. So is that a flip-flop when you fail twice after weeks of debate and discussion and being harmed dramatically in my chances to gain the nomination of my party? It's baloney!"
Still, McCain pledged that comprehensive immigration reform would be something he would tackle in the first 100 days of his presidency.
"Whether I have to go back to the United States Senate, which I don't believe I will, or go to the presidency, the whole issue of comprehensive immigration reform will be among my highest priorities," McCain said, "because we have to address this issue."
Finally, I asked McCain if he had a message for those Latinos who have long been in his corner, as he has been in theirs. He simply expressed his hope that "they'll just examine my record and my knowledge and my background and the judgments that I have made."
Whatever happens, he said, "I will respect their decision."
For many years, and before it was popular, John McCain has stood beside the Latino community. Now it has a chance to return the favor.