Obama and McCain Expand Courtship of Hispanics
By LARRY ROHTER
ALBUQUERQUE — Three times this month, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have addressed national Hispanic advocacy and community service organizations. As a result, it is possible to draw a picture of the strategy and tactics that each of the presumed presidential nominees intends to employ to win the Hispanic vote, expected to be decisive in several states.
In the past, a common complaint among Hispanic voters has been that politicians tend to view them as a one-issue bloc, concerned only about immigration. Both presidential campaigns are taking care to avoid that trap, emphasizing issues like education, health care and housing as much as, if not more than, immigration and related border issues.
They also clearly recognize the role that the Hispanic electorate, its numbers swelling with newly naturalized citizens and a population that skews young, could play in November.
“The Latino community holds the election in its hands,” Mr. Obama announced Sunday in San Diego at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza. Mr. McCain, meanwhile, imagined a situation in which election returns from the East were tight and everything came down to swing states like this one, where three of every eight voters are of Hispanic descent.
The candidates’ stances on the issues and their tone, however, are markedly different, as was evident in their speeches to La Raza. Mr. Obama, drawing on his background as a community organizer, evoked the theme of social justice and proclaimed his unqualified support for legislation that would allow high school students who are illegal immigrants to go to college or join the armed forces and gain legal residence status.
“I like everything he said he wants to do, especially for the poor,” Rafaela Garcia, leader of a community education and health services group in Kansas City, said after Mr. Obama spoke. “But then again, I’m a Democrat and will be one until I die.”
Mr. McCain’s message seems directed at what he views as the innate social conservatism of Hispanics. He seeks to appeal to their deep religiosity, strong and extended family ties and patriotism, and has also emphasized their propensity to create businesses of their own, with his support for more free trade with Latin America and special attention to Hispanics’ small businesses.
But on that last point, he may be hampered by his association with the Bush administration, even among those sympathetic to his message.
“I’m eager to hear what he has to say, but tax incentives do nothing for the people we serve, and the government has reduced or eliminated the grants that we need,” Cynthia Amador, who runs a small-business center for Hispanic women in Los Angeles, said before Mr. McCain’s speech to La Raza on Monday.
As for immigration, while both candidates say they favor comprehensive change in policy, there are differences in tone. Mr. Obama talks of 12 million undocumented immigrants in “hiding,” and of the need to “bring them in from the shadows.” Mr. McCain, from Arizona, a border state, says there are two million criminals among that group and also talks of drug traffickers manipulating immigrant flows.
Though the Hispanic population continues to disperse geographically, most still live in a handful of states rich in electoral votes. But those states are not likely to be the center of attention of the two campaigns’ Latino operations; California, New York and Illinois, Mr. Obama’s home state, are all presumed to be safely in the Obama column, while Texas is considered almost a lock for Mr. McCain.
Of the populous states with big Hispanic populations, only Florida is regarded as up for grabs, with both campaigns making an effort there. Instead, much of the focus has shifted to several small or medium-sized states, among them Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, where Mr. McCain campaigned on Tuesday.
“We’re going to spend more money on Latino TV and radio than has ever been spent on a presidential campaign, and by a lot,” Cuahtemoc Figueroa, the director of Mr. Obama’s Latino vote effort, told members of La Raza on Sunday.
The campaign also views Mr. Obama’s half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who taught school for several years in the Bronx, as something of a trump card to be deployed at events for Hispanic voters. “She speaks fluent Spanish, with a Dominican accent, and looks Latina,” Mr. Figueroa said.
Hessy Fernandez, Mr. McCain’s spokeswoman for Hispanic issues, said he was conceding nothing and argued that Mr. Obama “has been losing support” among Hispanics since he clinched the nomination. (A New York Times/CBS News poll found that Mr. Obama leads Mr. McCain among Hispanic voters by 62 percent to 23 percent.) Ms. Fernandez said Mr. McCain would “go places where no Republican has been before” in pursuit of Hispanic support.
Mr. McCain also has some unusual Hispanic surrogates from which to draw, she noted. For instance, his Naval Academy roommate, Frank Gamboa, has recorded a radio advertisement in Spanish in which he says that Mr. McCain “shares our conservative values and faith in God” and “knows that family is the most important thing we have and that we value hard work.”