When Sen. John McCain speaks to the nation's largest Hispanic rights group this weekend, he will face an audience increasingly confused about his immigration position and looking for a declaration that he remains the same champion with whom they have worked for two decades.
"He needs to demonstrate that he still is the John McCain that we think we know," said Cecilia Munoz, a vice president at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), which opens its annual convention Friday in San Diego.
She said the senator from Arizona is well-known and respected for his military service and for his long relationship with Hispanic groups nationally and in his home state, but now is "also working to attract the votes of the side of his party that doesn't like us. ... There's a pretty anti-Latino tone to that conversation, and it's not clear to me how you appeal to that side of the party and to the Latino vote at the same time."
"A grand slam for John McCain at NCLR's conference would be to stand up and say, 'I know there's people saying offensive stuff and I reject it,'" Ms. Munoz said in an interview previewing the convention. "'There's no place for that, in my party or in the political process.'"
The Republican presidential candidate and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, will both address NCLR. They spoke to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in June and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) earlier this week.
Ms. Munoz said Mr. Obama's challenge is different from Mr. McCain's: "People don't know him as well as they knew [former presidential rival Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton or Senator McCain. I think they need to know his heart and the depth of his commitment on the issues we care about."
Mr. McCain's speech Sunday and Mr. Obama's Monday will show that the candidates recognize the immense political power of Hispanic voters this year. Seeking to capitalize on that potential, NCLR's all-day citizenship drive is Saturday, the first full day of the convention.
The conference also will have a forum on health care, with policy advisers from both the Obama and McCain campaigns, and a workshop connecting homeowners with lenders to help stave off foreclosures.
"The big message is political empowerment," Ms. Munoz said, predicting that Hispanic turnout in the November election would reach a record 10 million and could go as high as 12 million as voters become energized over immigration and other issues. "This is a banner year across the community, in that both candidates are really going to be courting the Latino vote."
NCLR also has intensified efforts to fight what the group's leaders see as an anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic climate, including joining with other advocacy groups to encourage television networks to temper talk-show rhetoric.
Regardless of who wins the White House, Ms. Munoz said, the next Congress must resolve immigration policy in order to accomplish anything else because the issue touches every other priority.
She pointed to the debate this year on renewing the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which stalled when Republicans questioned whether benefits were going to immigrants, and called it a precursor for attempts at broader health care reform.
"There is a segment of the Republican Party, and it's mostly Republicans, but not exclusively, who don't want to talk about anything else," she said. "Literally, we've seen it on everything that goes through the House. Almost every single bill has a motion to recommit or some nasty immigration amendment."
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry addressed the NCLR convention, but President Bush did not.
Mr. Bush did attend in 2000, when the relationship was so friendly that the organization presented him with a birthday cake.
Mr. Obama made an appearance at the convention last year as he was gearing up for the Democratic primaries.
Although he has a shorter relationship with the Hispanic community, Mr. Obama points to his work as an activist registering voters in Chicago and to his participation in the May 2006 immigrant rights marches to show the depth of his commitment.
In his address to LULAC earlier this week, Mr. Obama challenged Hispanics to turn out to vote. Hispanic voters routinely represent a smaller percentage of their population than other ethnic groups.
"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," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. McCain, meanwhile, must prove to the audience that he is the same senator who has backed them for years. In an address to NCLR 20 years ago, he warned Americans against pressing too hard for English-first policies.
Last year, however, he voted for an amendment that would have made English the national language, a step that Hispanic rights groups vehemently opposed.
In addition, he has changed his rhetoric since an immigration reform bill failed last year and now discusses the need for border security before a legalization program can be discussed. In the process, he has worried Hispanic leaders who say his policy sounds akin to the stricter Republican proposals Mr. McCain has opposed in the past.
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