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McCain, Obama Court Hispanics

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour with politics and the presidential candidates' efforts to win Latino voters. So far, polls show a strong majority of Latinos leaning toward Barack Obama.

Today, Obama and John McCain addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC here in Washington, D.C. Immigration and border security are key issues. McCain spoke to LULAC today about recent approaches to overhauling immigration laws.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Many Americans, with good cause, didn't believe us when we said we would secure our borders so we failed in our efforts. We must prove to them that we can and will secure our borders first while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: Barack Obama addressed the group later in the day.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I want to give Senator McCain credit because he used to buck his party on immigration. He fought for comprehensive immigration reform. A lot of the bills that I had co-sponsored, he was the lead. I admired him for it. But when he started running for his party's nomination, he abandoned his courageous stance and said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote.

BLOCK: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is at the event. And Mara, tell us more about the group LULAC and what's going on at the event today.

MARA LIASSON: LULAC is the League of United Latin American Citizens. It's a big, mainstream Hispanic organization. There are hundreds of activists here. It's right in the middle of the political spectrum, I think, if you consider La Raza on the left and maybe the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on the right. It's right in the middle, it's filled with activists, and both candidates certainly want their votes.

BLOCK: An we heard both candidates just now addressing the immigration issue. Interesting to hear Barack Obama taking McCain on directly before this audience, which he must know is a key constituency in November.

LIASSON: Yes. Obama went on the attack. He's been very aggressive about an issue that McCain has really been strongly identified with. But Obama sees an opening here. Right now, in some polls, he's leading among Hispanic voters 2-1. And when he said that John McCain abandoned his stance - he said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation - he was referring to a moment in a Republican primary debate where McCain was pressed on this and said, if your bill came up for a vote, would you vote for it? And he kept on saying, well, that's a hypothetical question, it won't come up, we failed. And the questioner was very persistent, and McCain really committed one of the most basic errors of a candidate - he answered a hypothetical question, and he said no. And now Obama's going to punish him for it.

BLOCK: And Obama's saying there that McCain switched his positions. Now, as - if you look at the candidates' positions on immigration, is there a major gap between what Barack Obama is saying and what John McCain is saying?

LIASSON: There really isn't, and you can't really say that McCain switched his positions. What McCain did is the bill that he proposed and sponsored had a path to legalization for undocumented aliens. Also, it had some border security measures. He hasn't given up on the path to citizenship, but now he says we have to secure the border first because if we don't, Americans won't support comprehensive immigration reform. Both these candidates are for the same thing - a path to citizenship that doesn't reward people who came in illegally. But McCain did change his emphasis, and Obama sees that as an opening especially with this key battleground demographic group of voters, and he's pushing on it.

BLOCK: When Hispanic voters are polled on what issues are most important to them, what is the main issue?

LIASSON: Well, it's interesting. Immigration is not necessarily number one. Like all voters, the economy is number one. Hispanic voters also care about Iraq; they are disproportionately represented in the Armed Forces. So immigration isn't necessarily the number one, but it certainly was one issue where Barack Obama felt that he could press an advantage over John McCain. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: According to the Department of Defense, Hispanics are actually underrepresented in the active forces as a whole, compared to their numbers in the civilian population.]

However, in the latest Pew poll, I should tell you that immigration is one of the very, very few issues where McCain has an advantage over Obama. Forty-four percent to 39 percent of people chose McCain on the issue of immigration. That's unusual this year that there's any issue where McCain polls better.

BLOCK: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson at the convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens here in Washington. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.