SAN DIEGO — He didn't break into Spanish, nor did he back down from his emphatic position that border security must be the cornerstone of immigration overhaul. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) continued his fervid courtship of Latino voters Monday, speaking to about 2,000 people at the National Council of La Raza's annual convention the day after his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, came calling.
In an indication of how highly valued these voters are, this was the third time in the last 15 days that each presidential candidate has appeared before a major Latino political group.
McCain, whose stance on immigration has shifted to the right over the last year to align him more with the Republican base, is striving to put the Latino vote into play this November.
Obama also faces a struggle: Most Latinos voted for his rival in the Democratic primaries, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. When McCain praised Obama as an inspiring figure, the crowd listened; when he praised Clinton, the crowd cheered. (Obama got a similar response when he invoked her name on Sunday.)
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 16, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Presidential campaign: An article in Tuesday's Section A on Sen. John McCain's appearance at the convention of the National Council of La Raza said that the Republican had cosponsored a bill that would have made illegal presence in the U.S. a felony. It did not. It made fraudulent use of a Social Security number a felony and mandated jail time for people who overstay their visas.
"Latinos are among the hardest-working, most productive people in our country," McCain said. "We would not be the special country we are without you.
"Times are tough," McCain said. " I don't have to tell anybody in this room. . . . Over 400,000 people have lost their jobs since December, and the rate of new job creation has fallen sharply."
Calling education "the civil rights issue of our time," McCain noted that half of Latinos entering high school did not graduate, and praised La Raza for its work in helping establish 100 charter schools. "In the global economy," he said, "what you learn is what you earn."
He called himself an "unapologetic supporter" of free-trade agreements that cover the Americas. He got in a dig at Obama when touting his own recent three-day trip to Mexico and Colombia, the mere mention of which drew applause.
"While it is surely not my intention to become my opponent's scheduler," McCain said, "I hope Sen. Obama soon visits some of the other countries of the Americas. . . . I think he too would see that stronger economic bonds with our neighbors and the closer friendships they encourage are a great benefit in many ways to our country."
McCain proudly spoke of his 2006 collaboration with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on a bill to overhaul immigration policy that included a guest worker program and a path to citizenship. The bill failed.
In response to a question about whether he would make humane immigration policy changes a priority in his first year as president, McCain said yes.
He accused Obama of trying to kill a 2007 measure, which also failed. "Sen. Obama went out at the request of the labor unions and voted for amendments that would have killed the bill," McCain said, "and that's the facts, sir."
That's not how the facts are universally interpreted. One of the most contentious elements of the 2007 bill was a provision eliminating the traditional family-based approach to immigration and replacing it with a system giving applicants "points" based on their education and occupation, among other things.
Several of the amendments Obama backed were intended to restore part of the family-based approach or to limit the point-based system, said Marshall Fitz of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.
"It's inaccurate to say those amendments were designed to kill the bill," Fitz said. "They were designed to improve it."
Many Latinos, La Raza officials said, view McCain with a mix of warmth and wariness.
"People feel like they know him well, that they know where his heart is" on immigration, said La Raza Vice President Cecilia Munoz. "But there's a confusion about where he is substantively."
A month after the 2007 bill failed, McCain co-sponsored an enforcement-only immigration bill that critics considered punitive. Among other things, it would have made illegal immigration a felony.
Though McCain has aired Spanish-language ads, Munoz said, Latinos are uncertain about how McCain would stand up to those Republicans "who appear to be running against us, running ads that rely on exaggeration, innuendo and fear to ignite a part of the base that is not only anti- immigrant but anti-Latino."
Munoz said Latinos wonder whether a McCain presidency would mean a continuation of immigration raids that have sown fear and broken up families. "Would a McCain administration engage in the same tactics we're seeing from the Bush administration?" she asked.
During a 15-minute Q&A after McCain's speech, a young woman asked if he would support the Dream Act, which gives illegal immigrant children a chance to earn citizenship by attending college or enlisting in the military.
"Yes. Yes," he replied, then added a sentiment that he incorporated into almost every answer: "I would also enforce existing laws of our country, and the nation's first requirement is the nation's security, and that's why you have to have our borders secured."