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McCain, Obama Court Influential Hispanic Voting Bloc

July 8, 2008 at 6:20 PM EST
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Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama addressed Latino leaders Tuesday as both candidates seek the support of Hispanic voters. Campaign advisers discuss the appeals to this key voting bloc and weigh the power of the Hispanic electorate in battleground states.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: With more than 9 million Latinos expected to vote this fall, John McCain and Barack Obama have stepped up their courtship of this key constituency.

That effort continued today, as the presidential rivals addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens in Washington.

McCain went first and focused primarily on the economy.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Ariz.: Small businesses are the job engine of America. And I’ll make it easier for them to grow and create more jobs. There are 2 million — 2 million Latino-owned businesses in America, a number that’s growing very rapidly, 2 million of them.

The first consideration we should have when debating tax policy is how we can help those companies grow and increase the prosperity of the millions of American families whose economic security depends on their success.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Near the end of his remarks, McCain raised Congress’s stalled attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform last year.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Many Americans, with good cause, didn’t believe us when we said we would secure our borders, so we failed in our efforts. We must prove to them that we can and will secure our borders first, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States of America.

But we must not make the mistake of thinking that our responsibility to meet this challenge will end with that accomplishment. We have economic and humanitarian responsibilities, as well, and they require no less dedication from us in meeting them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama spoke to the Latino group late this afternoon and accused McCain of backing down from the fight over immigration reform.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Ill.: I want to give Senator McCain credit, because he used to buck his party on immigration. He fought for comprehensive immigration reform. One of the bills that I co-sponsored, he was the lead. I admired him for it.

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.

Well, for eight long years, we’ve had a president who’s made all kinds of promises to Latinos on the campaign trail, but failed to live up to them in the White House. And we can’t afford that anymore. We need a president who isn’t going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama also made a direct plea to those in the crowd, noting their support could be critical in a number of states.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: But I can’t do it on my own. I need your help. This election could well be decided by Latino voters.

Every four years, some of the closest contests take place in Florida, Colorado, and Nevada, and New Mexico. And guess what? Those are all states with Latino populations.

In 2004, 40,000 Latinos who were registered to vote in New Mexico didn’t turn out on election day. Senator Kerry lost that state by less than 6,000 votes, 6,000 votes. That’s a small fraction of the number of Latinos who aren’t even registered to vote in New Mexico today.

So while I know how powerful a community you are, I also know how powerful you could be on November 4th, if you translate your numbers into votes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama and McCain are scheduled to address yet another influential Hispanic group, the National Council of La Raza, this weekend in San Diego.

Candidates looking for Latino vote

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look at the appeals the candidates are making to Hispanics, we turn to two campaign advisers responsible for reaching out to this voting bloc.

Ana Navarro is a co-chair of John McCain's National Hispanic Advisory Council. And former U.S. transportation secretary and former Denver Mayor Federico Pena joins us from Colorado. He serves as Barack Obama's national campaign co-chair.

Thanks to both of you for being with us. Ana Navarro, to you first, first, just in brief, what does Senator McCain believe are the most considerations in this election for Latino voters?

ANA NAVARRO, McCain campaign's National Hispanic Advisory Council: I think a lot of them are the same as they are for any other American. Latinos, like every other American, are concerned about the economy. They're concerned about energy prices. They're concerned about education for their children and national security.

The immigration issue is one issue. And, of course, it affects us very closely. We all know somebody -- we're all either immigrants or know somebody that's an immigrant or that's going through the process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why does he think he'd be better on these issues than Senator Obama?

ANA NAVARRO: For the same reason he'd be better for all Americans: Because he's got 25 years of experience of building bipartisan coalitions to get results.

And any of these issues that Latinos and all Americans are facing, whether it be immigration or education, they are complex issues that require very complex answers that are bipartisan in nature. And John McCain has proved all his life that that's what he can do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Pena, same questions to you. First of all, in brief, what does Senator Obama believe are the main considerations this year on the minds of Latino voters?

FEDERICO PENA, Obama campaign's national co-chair: Well, they're very similar to all Americans. First is the economy. Higher prices for food, gasoline, health care, just getting by day to day is a major challenge for Latinos.

Secondly, the war in Iraq. We have many, many young men and women, Latinos, who have fought in Iraq, very unpopular war.

Thirdly is energy security, energy prices, health care. And immigration is also an important point, but I would agree that it's not the most important issue for the Hispanic community in the United States.

Defining candidates' positions

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why does Senator Obama think he'd be better on these issues?

FEDERICO PENA: Very simply, he gets it. Let's talk about the economy. He is providing tax relief for middle-income citizens. So if you are a middle-class taxpayer, you get $1,000 tax break. If you're an individual, it's $500.

If you're a senior citizen making less than $50,000 a year, you get no taxes. If you're a homeowner, and you don't itemize on your taxes, you get a certain credit for the interest paid on your home. So in terms of domestic policy, economic issues, he is there.

In terms of health care, he's for universal health care. He believes in reducing the cost of health care for all Americans, very important for the Hispanic community.

And in terms of the war in Iraq, there couldn't be a bigger difference. He will end the war in Iraq, bring our troops home in a methodical way in 12 to 16 months, very important for our families, because Latinos are the most loyal for many, many decades, have served this country for many, many decades, and they want to end this war, also.

For all those reasons, I believe Barack Obama is the person who can best relate to our issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ana Navarro, how would you respond to that? I mean, these sound like many of the same issues Americans across the country are thinking about.

ANA NAVARRO: They are the same issues. You know, Latinos live in the same United States and have the same issues.

I think Secretary Pena may have missed the part this weekend about Senator Obama refining his Iraq solution. And hopefully now, when he finally goes down to Iraq and meets with General Petraeus, he might understand what things on the ground are like and may change his mind yet again.

You know, look, Senator McCain has 25 years of experience. He represents a state where the Latinos are a very crucial community. He gets almost 75 percent of the support from Latinos in Arizona. This man has worked with this community, and they know him. Barack Obama is a new face, is a stranger to our community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you respond to that, Secretary Pena?

FEDERICO PENA: Well, Senator Obama is not a stranger to our community, Ana. First of all, he won the Latino vote in Colorado; he won the Latino vote in Illinois; he won the Latino vote in Virginia and Maryland. He's going to do very well.

We're ahead in New Mexico. We're ahead in Colorado. We're ahead in many states around the Southwest. So we're doing quite well.

But since you raise the question of flip-flopping and you made the suggestion that somehow Barack has changed his -- refined his position in Iraq, let's talk about the flip-flopper.

It was Senator McCain who was for comprehensive immigration reform, and now he's not. Now, because he said to his own audience, he listened very carefully to the conservative group of the Republican Party, he now wants border security first. It was Senator McCain who said the tax cuts of President Bush proposed were wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's pick up -- well, let me interrupt you there.

FEDERICO PENA: And they were wrong during the war. And now he's for them. So let's be very careful about suggesting that people are changing their positions. I'm happy to take that issue on any time.

Immigration reform in the Senate

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let's take first the point about immigration reform. Senator McCain was one of the principal sponsors of comprehensive immigration reform. He himself said earlier this year that he would not vote for the legislation he earlier advocated. Help us understand why not.

ANA NAVARRO: The legislation is not going to come up again in the same form. And, you know, if you want to talk about immigration, I'm also more than happy to take on the immigration issue.

What was Barack Obama doing last year, while John McCain and Ted Kennedy were leading on immigration? He was voting for poison pill amendments. This was a very fragile and precariously put together agreement, from the left and from the right.

You know, and you had senators like Lindsey Graham or Dianne Feinstein, like Ted Kennedy, like Arlen Specter, meeting every morning to try to make sure that this bill would survive and could go to the floor.

Barack Obama was siding with the unions. He was voting for amendments that were poison pills, things like sun-setting the temporary worker program, things that made it easier for this bill to fail, which it ultimately did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Pena?

FEDERICO PENA: Well, if that's true, then why did Senator McCain in the congressional record congratulate and thank Senator Obama for his support of comprehensive immigration reform? If that's true, why did Senator Kennedy in the congressional record congratulate and thank Senator Obama?

If that's true, Ana, why did Senator Mel Martinez, the Republican from Florida, write a personal letter, which I have a copy of, to Senator Obama thanking him for his strong support of immigration reform?

So I don't accept the argument. Your own candidate thanked Senator Obama for his strong support.

But what's more important is that Senator McCain has dramatically changed his position on immigration reform once he was a candidate for president and once he heard from the very conservative wing of the Republican Party, which said, "Please build the wall first, and then you can talk about comprehensive immigration reform."

And that's precisely what he's now said he's going to do as president of the United States. And that's unfortunate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's let Ms. Navarro respond to that.

ANA NAVARRO: Let me remind Secretary Pena that his candidate, Barack Obama, voted for the wall. Let me also remind him that, in order to solve immigration -- in order to solve immigration, it's going to involve Latin America. It's going to involve working with the leaders there and, you know, making it so that Latin Americans don't have to leave their country. Nobody wants to leave their countries.

And you know what? Barack Obama has never so much as set foot in Tijuana, much less anywhere else in Latin America. It's going to be very hard for him to start working now, and knowing, and meeting, and forging relationships with countries and leaders that he's never visited, he's never talked to, he doesn't know about.

Undocumented immigrants in America

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, I want to ask both of you, and I'll start with you, Ms. Navarro. What does Senator McCain believe should happen to those approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants who are right now in the United States?

ANA NAVARRO: He believes that, after the borders are secure, and that in itself enables for there to be a legalization program.

He thinks that the American public is a very generous people. And that, you know, if they are -- if they regain the confidence that their government is capable of enforcing their border and of making their border secure, then they will be willing to be compassionate, and fair, and generous towards those 12 million who are already here, and are contributing to our economy, and are children of God, as John McCain always calls them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Pena, the same question?

FEDERICO PENA: Well, first of all, we have no idea, nor does Senator McCain know what it means to have the borders secure. Does that mean that the Department of Homeland Security must certify to the president that not one person has crossed the border illegally? That's an impossible standard.

What is more important is that, to Senator McCain's credit, he understood years ago that the way to address immigration is through a comprehensive fashion, which included fortifying the border, but also a path to citizenship.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But with regard, quickly, to Senator Obama, his view on those undocumented immigrants?

FEDERICO PENA: He strongly believes that they should have a path to citizenship. He also strongly believes that employers ought to have sanctions imposed upon them.

And he believes in a long-term comprehensive solution so we can finally get our arms around this immigration challenge. And he is a strong supporter of supporting Mexico and its economy, so people don't feel they have to come to the United States in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to have to leave it there. Secretary Federico Pena, thank you.

FEDERICO PENA: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ana Navarro, thank you both. We appreciate it.

ANA NAVARRO: Thank you.