- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

John McCain and Barack Obama are accelerating their bid for the Hispanic vote. This week, they both delivered a speech to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). They will also both speak to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) on Sunday and Monday. The candidates have similar views on immigration reform. Yet, Mr. Obama, who has less of a track record in addressing Latino issues, is currently more bold in courting this constituency. Ironically, Mr. McCain, who has long and diligently served the Hispanic community, is more awkward in his appeal. He must continue to insist on border security and to reveal how a conservative agenda benefits all Americans, including Hispanics - but he must also manifest his previous work on behalf of Hispanics.

Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have stated that they will secure the border, establish temporary worker programs and create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. In his speech to LULAC, Mr. Obama was direct, warm and made specific references to Latino concerns regarding health care and education. He also demonstrated great sympathy for their economic needs: “When Hispanics lose their jobs faster than almost anybody else, or work jobs that pay less, and come with fewer benefits than almost anybody else that isn’t a Hispanic-American problem, that’s an American problem.” Mr. Obama pledged to make immigration reform his top priority in the first year of his desired presidency.

By contrast, Mr. McCain is walking a tightrope as he courts the Hispanic vote. In his speech to LULAC, he detailed his agenda for the economy, health care, trade and energy. Mr. McCain applauded Hispanic contributions to American society - especially their military contributions. This is part of the Arizona Senator’s efforts - also evidenced in his latest campaign ad - to emphasize how Latinos and Republicans share a similar patriotic zeal and regard for national security. In his speech to LULAC, Mr. McCain also referenced his previous work on immigration reform - but he did so mostly in an apologetic manner, citing the failure to pass immigration reform. Mr. McCain reaffirmed his commitment to secure America’s borders and tepidly stated that Americans have “economic and humanitarian responsibilities” - but he did not elaborate.

To his detriment, Mr. McCain treads too carefully in courting Hispanics, for fear of alienating the anti-illegal immigration voters. He does not want to upset the 62 percent of Republicans who, according to a May 2008 Pew Research poll, state that immigration is “very important” in how they vote. However, Mr. McCain’s Hispanic strategy may be too tepid. A June NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 62 percent of Hispanics will vote for Mr. Obama.

While upholding his law and order stance that appeals to the conservative base, Mr. McCain should also be bolder in touting his track record with Hispanics. Mr. Obama, who has done far less in courting Latinos during his political career, is poised to win the majority of a swing bloc of voters - because, despite his lack of substance, he has mastered the art of symbolism.

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