WASHINGTON — With an estimated 9.2 million Hispanic voters poised to play a critical role in November, John McCain and Barack Obama each pledged Saturday to make overhauling immigration laws a priority as they courted influential Hispanic leaders who could be pivotal in key swing states like Florida.
McCain, the senator from the border state of Arizona who disappointed some Hispanic leaders by appearing to temper his support for comprehensive immigration law changes during the Republican primary, told the crowd that fixing U.S. immigration policy would be a priority — even as he acknowledged it's not popular with some members of his own party.
"It'll be my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow," McCain told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Speaking an hour after McCain, Obama credited McCain with championing immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But he accused his rival of abandoning the cause as he courted the conservative base of the Republican Party. Both rivals support a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration laws, though McCain has lately emphasized a need to first secure the nation's borders.
"What (McCain) didn't mention is when he was running for his party's nomination, he walked away from that commitment," Obama said. "If we are going to solve the challenges we face, we can't vacillate, we can't shift depending on politics."
McCain told the crowd that his previous attempts at overhauling immigration laws and giving undocumented workers a shot at citizenship failed because "Americans didn't believe we would take care of our national security requirements."
"We have to secure our borders, that's the message," he said, pledging to pursue immigration reform in a "a human and compassionate fashion."
"We will resolve the immigration issue in America and we will secure our borders," he said, his speech interrupted four times by war protesters whom the audience tried to drown out.
Obama, too, spoke first of a need for border security, along with establishing penalties for employers who exploit illegal immigrants and establishing a way to bring "the 12 million who are here illegally out of the shadows ... and put them on a pathway to citizenship."
The two campaigns sparred over the details after the speeches: McCain's camp accused Obama of voting for "poison pill" amendments designed to kill the immigration deal; Obama's camp noted that McCain had thanked Obama in 2006 for his work on immigration reform.
Recent polls show Obama with an edge over McCain among Hispanic voters, though he performed poorly in some Hispanic quarters against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Obama and Clinton met Thursday night with about 40 of Clinton's top Hispanic advisers, just hours after Clinton urged a NALEO crowd to embrace Obama's candidacy. The response Saturday was boisterous, with the audience chanting his name as he took the stage.
But Republicans have made gains among Hispanics in recent election cycles, and McCain's presence at the conference impressed several in the crowd. He and most of his GOP rivals had skipped NALEO's conference during the primaries.
"McCain had the guts to show up," said Esteban Ferreiro of Miami, a Republican and NALEO member who said the "Republican perception" of the group is that it leans Democratic. "He's saying, 'I'm here, this is who I am and I know your vote is important.'"