John McCain on Thursday finished a three-day presidential campaign trip to Latin America to mine the politics of free trade and foreign policy, but Republicans say the real vote mother lode may lie in the politics of a country he didn't visit - Venezuela, and its combative president, Hugo Chavez.
Republicans think U.S. Hispanic voters' antipathy to Mr. Chavez, particularly in Florida, can be connected to Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who has promised to meet directly with Mr. Chavez.
"When you add [Mr. Obama's] comments on Chavez, visiting with [Fidel] Castro and against the free-trade agreement with Colombia - probably the most damaging - the rest of the pro-Hispanic rhetoric hits a skeptical audience," said former Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas.
The Hispanic vote is expected to be critical in the November election, and Mr. McCain has made a full-court press, running a series of Spanish-language Web, radio and television ads.
In a Web ad released Thursday, Frank Gamboa, a retired captain and Mr. McCain's roommate at the U.S. Naval Academy, says in Spanish that Mr. Obama "has just discovered the importance of the Hispanic vote."
In addition, Mr. McCain's three-day trip to Latin America involved meetings with leaders of two key U.S. allies: Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. The trip also produced key images such as photos of Mr. McCain visiting the Basilica of Guadalupe, an important pilgrimage site for Mexican Catholics.
Democrats accused Mr. McCain of taking politics overseas by criticizing Mr. Obama in an interview from Mexico City. They pointed out that the senator from Arizona was out of the country campaigning for free trade as a Labor Department report released Thursday showed a net loss of jobs in the U.S.
The Democratic National Committee called it "an out of touch moment for the ages," arguing that "scores of American jobs have fled" to Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The Obama campaign said voters want the new foreign policy engagement that the senator from Illinois has promised.
"The question in this election is whether we continue the policies of the last eight years that have allowed Chavez to expand his influence in a vital region, or whether we turn the page on this failed approach. Senator Obama will use all the elements of our power to promote democracy and opportunity in the region," said Obama campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan.
Also on Thursday, Mr. McCain told NBC News that campaign staff changes this week are minor. Steve Schmidt, the man he put in charge of day-to-day operations, released a memo saying the campaign will become more centralized by hiring key personnel to work at its national headquarters in Arlington.
In the fight for Hispanic votes, those on both sides say Mr. McCain will need to equal the 40 percent President Bush won in his 2004 re-election bid.
Mr. Obama has been plagued by praise from enemy foreign leaders, including Cuba's communist dictatorship. Mr. McCain may have been helped by attacks from leaders including Mr. Chavez, who called the Republican "a man of war" and put him on par with Mr. Bush.
In an interview last month with Jorge Ramos of Univision, Mr. Obama said Mr. Chavez should be handled carefully, but with direct diplomacy.
"Yes, I believe he is a threat, however, a manageable threat," Mr. Obama said, according to a translation by WatchingAmerica.com, a Web site that translates world news reports about the U.S. Mr. Obama said Mr. Chavez could have been involved in supporting a Marxist insurgency in Colombia, and said the right solution is to have the United Nations or Organization of American States impose sanctions.
Republicans involved in the presidential campaign have taken notice.
"We have clearly identified this as being a major vulnerability for the Obama campaign," said one operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about campaign strategy. "Hispanics, particularly those located in South Florida, recognize that any kind of negotiations with individuals like Hugo Chavez, who is fueling hatred of our country and terrorism south of the border, is unacceptable.
"Barack Obama will have a near-impossible time explaining this to Hispanic voters."
Republicans say the anti-Chavez strategy is tried and true - in Mexico.
In that country's 2006 presidential election Mr. Calderon repeatedly tied his opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to Mr. Chavez. Mexico's elections regulator ruled that the ads were too aggressive and had to be taken off the air, but analysts said the association helped flip the election. Mr. Calderon won by a slim margin.
Democrats ridiculed Republicans for looking to the Mexican election for inspiration, saying they should be looking instead to solve American voters' issues.
Mr. Cardenas said the sailing isn't smooth for Mr. McCain, either, saying "the GOP has a strong head wind there as well."
Mr. Cardenas, who was born in Cuba, said it will be "interesting to see not just polling numbers but the turnout."
He noted that the Republican Party's "best gains have been with Hispanic evangelicals who do vote in high numbers and Hispanic military families and small business groups."
If Nov. 4 turnout is low, Mr. McCain and other Republican candidates generally will do well with Hispanics, Mr. Cardenas predicted.
"If the turnout is high, then Obama should have the advantage," he said. "We will see."
cRalph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.
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