- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2008

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain released a commercial Friday linking Sen. Barack Obama to anti-American rants by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in the hope that Hispanic voters’ disdain for the divisive Latin American leader will pay off at the polls.

In the ad - replete with bleeps to cover up Mr. Chavez’s repeated expletives in condemning Americans - the McCain campaign charges that Mr. Obama would meet unconditionally with Mr. Chavez and other anti-American foreign leaders. “Do you believe we should talk with Chavez?” the announcer asks.

The McCain campaign said Hispanic voters are particularly open to the message because many of them are immigrants who came to the U.S. seeking to escape the sort of political tactics Mr. Chavez employs.

“They come to American for freedom, and yet Senator Obama seems overly willing to deal with a tin-pot dictator,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said.

It marks the latest barb in a two-week exchange between Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama as the battle for Hispanic voters heats up. It follows particularly brutal ads in which each side has accused the other of walking away from an immigration accord.

Hispanic advocates and political operatives say Mr. McCain must win at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote - the same share President Bush won in 2004 - to defeat Mr. Obama on Nov. 4.

For now, most polls show Mr. McCain falling short of that goal and also falling behind Mr. Bush’s Hispanic voter performance in Florida and in the Southwest.

Seeking to press that advantage, Mr. Obama has vowed to team up with the Democratic National Committee for a $20 million campaign aimed at turning out Hispanic voters this year.

Federico de Jesus, an Obama campaign spokesman, called the new Chavez ad the “latest distortion” from Mr. McCain, and said it’s actually President Bush’s policy that has boosted the Venezuelan leader.

“We cannot afford more of the same economic policies that have driven us into a ditch, and we cannot afford more of the same foreign policy that has strengthened Chavez and set back U.S. leadership in Latin America while doing nothing to break our dependence on foreign oil,” he said.

The McCain ad, which has both a Spanish and an English-subtitled version, will run in Florida - a state where Republicans say anti-Chavez sentiment runs high.

Mr. McCain has not missed opportunities to stoke the fire. Last week, when Venezuela expelled the U.S. ambassador, Mr. McCain used the occasion to slam Mr. Obama’s opposition to off-shore drilling as leaving the U.S. dependent on Venezuelan oil, and said Mr. Obama’s foreign policy was too cozy with Mr. Chavez.

“The United States, and our partners throughout Latin America, cannot afford Senator Obama’s brand of unilateralism that rewards Hugo Chavez and his dangerous despotism,” the Arizona senator said.

The link between Mr. Obama and Mr. Chavez stems from several appearances Mr. Obama made last year in which he said he would be willing to meet unconditionally with anti-American leaders, specifically including Mr. Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Obama, though, has also had harsh words for Mr. Chavez, calling him a “demagogue,” and his campaign stresses Mr. Obama only expressed a willingness, not a promise, to meet with him. Mr. Obama also says his approach would be similar to that of former presidents who met with leaders of communist nations during the Cold War.

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