John McCain, angling to win a bigger share of the fast-growing Latino vote, is taking the risky step of placing an immigration overhaul at the center of his appeal.
The presumed Republican presidential nominee, who trails Barack Obama among Latinos, had been focused on assuring conservatives that securing the U.S. border with Mexico would be his immigration priority. But McCain has adopted a message that gives equal weight to helping employers and immigrant workers and their families. That suggests that as president he would back the kind of legislation that has roiled many in his party -- most notably, a legalization plan for undocumented workers.
McCain’s approach was on display Tuesday when he told the League of United Latin American Citizens gathering here that he would deal “practically and humanely with those who came here, as my distant ancestors did, to build a better, safer life for their families.”
And in a new series of advertisements -- in Spanish and English -- and a five-minute video, McCain talks about his long ties to Latinos and says immigrants’ needs are “as important” as helping businesses and securing the border.
“We will solve it with legislation that’s practical and fair,” McCain says of immigration in the video, according to a script obtained by The Times. “We will abide by the law in every way. We will secure our borders first and ask border-state governors to certify that the border is secure.
“Then we will address the burden U.S. employers are enduring by creating a temporary-worker program, so employers can hire and people can have jobs. And as important, we will be sensitive to the immigrant workers and their families who are doing the work that must be done,” he adds.
McCain steers clear of directly calling for a pathway to citizenship. But his subtle language matches that of legalization advocates.
The video, filmed recently in New Mexico, may be shown publicly next week, when McCain is scheduled to address another large Latino group, the National Council of La Raza, which is meeting in San Diego.
His move to highlight immigrants’ needs underscores the importance of Latino voters -- particularly in the key battleground states of Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida -- and suggests that whoever wins the presidency will be committed to giving some kind of legal status to many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S.
Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee, has promised to support an immigration overhaul that would include a legalization plan and enhanced border security.
On Tuesday, Obama, who also addressed the Latin American citizens group in Washington, accused McCain of abandoning his support for a path to citizenship.
He noted that during the GOP primary season, McCain had said he would not vote for the legalization plan he once championed because “people want the border secured first.” Obama suggested that Latino voters should not trust McCain as a loyal friend.
“Sen. McCain used to buck his party on immigration,” Obama said. “Well, for eight long years, we’ve had a president who made all kinds of promises to Latinos . . . but failed to live up to them in the White House, and we can’t afford that anymore. We need a president who isn’t going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular.”
Obama signaled that part of his Latino outreach would be to draw links between his life and the immigrant story. He likened new immigrants’ desires to those of his father, who came to the U.S. from Kenya.
The Illinois senator also suggested he might benefit from the political fervor in the Latino community, demonstrated when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Los Angeles and other cities to protest critics of a legalization plan. “During the immigration marches back in 2006, we had a saying: ‘Today, we march. Tomorrow, we vote,’ ” Obama said. “Well, that was the time to march. And now comes the time to vote.”
Surveys show Obama holds a strong lead among Latino voters, 59% to 29%, according to the most recent Gallup Poll. That puts McCain far below the 40% President Bush won four years ago.
Strategists in both parties believe that Republican support among Latino voters suffered when congressional conservatives blocked compromise legislation to overhaul immigration law -- forged mainly by McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- in 2006 and 2007.
And McCain distanced himself from the compromise in the heat of a competitive GOP primary in which immigration emerged as a top concern among the party’s overwhelmingly white, conservative base. Now, however, he rarely misses an opportunity to brag about his role in the debate -- even invoking the name of Kennedy, a figure reviled by conservatives but beloved by many Latinos.
GOP strategists believe that Obama too has some vulnerabilities on the issue. They say that he played a minor role in the negotiations last year, despite efforts to describe himself as a more central player, and that he voted for amendments that sponsors believed helped stymie the compromise.
Although McCain continues to talk of securing the borders first, he does not rule out a legalization program.
On Tuesday, after pledging to work for better border enforcement, he was quick to add: “But we must not make the mistake of thinking that our responsibility to meet this challenge will end with that accomplishment. We have economic and humanitarian responsibilities as well, and they require no less dedication from us.”
McCain has sought a delicate balance in recent weeks, but his shifting rhetoric has prompted some complaints from conservatives. After a recent closed-door meeting with Latino leaders in Chicago, one anti-illegal-immigration activist in attendance accused the Arizona senator of making different promises to different groups, and argued that strict border enforcement was unworkable if existing undocumented workers were given a path to citizenship.
“He’s being two-faced,” said Rosanna Pulido, director of the Illinois Minuteman Project.
McCain’s new ad campaign not only embraces his past work on immigration, but also distances him from the conservatives who opposed him.
In the video, he refers to the harsh rhetoric that many in his party used to oppose the legislation, saying that “too often, new immigrants have been treated as objects of fear instead of symbols of hope.”
Some ads, such as a Spanish-language radio spot released last week, feature McCain’s Latino Naval Academy roommate, Frank Gamboa, who has recorded messages in both languages extolling his longtime friend’s virtues. Though he did not directly mention immigration, Gamboa noted that McCain “has stood for our community even in the most difficult of times.”
Strategists expect some ads will contain footage of McCain’s trip last week to Mexico, where he visited cultural sites with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- whose wife is Mexican American and who polls show is hugely popular among Latino voters in his home state.
Times staff writer Louise Roug contributed to this report.