- 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.

For months, Republicans have said they see an opening by using Mr. Chavez. The strategy is based in part on the success Mexican President Felipe Calderon had in winning his country’s 2006 election by demonizing Mr. Chavez.

Mr. Calderon, who had initially trailed in polls, began deploying ads tying his chief opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to Mr. Chavez, and analysts said the attacks flipped the polls around, giving Mr. Calderon a slim victory.

But Luis Fraga, a professor at the University of Washington and one of the principal investigators in the Latino National Survey, a compendium of data about Hispanic voters, said the Chavez attack ad won’t have much effect here.

“Separate from immigration-related issues, there is no consistent evidence that issues in Latin America have a great impact on the political preferences of Latino voters in the United States,” he said.

He said Hispanic voters in the 2006 study ranked issues facing the country about the same way as other voters did. But asked which issues were most important to Latino voters in particular, a plurality chose immigration.

The issue is so volatile it’s been the subject of harsh ads in the Spanish-language market.

Despite Mr. McCain’s clear leadership on, and Mr. Obama’s support for, a bill legalizing illegal immigrants, each man has blasted the other for not doing enough.

Mr. McCain and the Republican National Committee have accused Mr. Obama of supporting amendments that scuttled the immigration agreement.

Mr. Obama replied with an ad linking Mr. McCain to talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who fought the senator’s immigration proposal.

“They made us feel marginalized in a country we love so much,” the ad says, pointing to “insults” it says were tossed at Hispanics.

Mr. McCain has said he now supports certifying the borders are secure before going ahead with another attempt at legalization. Mr. Obama says security and legalization must be part of the same package.

Mr. Obama has seen prominent Hispanic supporters of Mr. Obama’s nomination rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, announce support for Mr. McCain. One of them, Luchy Secaira, a former superdelegate for Mrs. Clinton, said she doubts Mr. Obama’s strength among Hispanic voters.

“I was on the ground, and I think all this support is just smoke and mirrors. I don’t think he enjoys overwhelming support in the Hispanic community, as does John McCain,” she told reporters in endorsing the Republican yesterday on a conference call arranged by the McCain campaign.

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