WASHINGTON — Courting the increasingly influential Latino vote, the rival presidential candidates each pledged Saturday to make overhauling the nation's immigration policies a top priority.
In separate appearances before the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain looked for every possible way to connect with their audience and emphasize distinctions between themselves.
Before the candidates spoke, Adolfo Carrion Jr., the association president and Bronx Borough president, laid down the stakes: "I believe that we will determine the outcome of the 2008 presidential election."
Perhaps with that in mind, Obama delivered a few lines in Spanish -- "Si, se puede," or "Yes, we can," he said -- and recalled marching in the streets of Chicago in support of immigration reform. He offered his historic campaign to become the first African American president as a signpost for others.
"I'm hoping that somewhere out there in the audience sits the person who will be the first Latino nominee in their party," he said.
McCain noted that he represents Arizona, "where Spanish was spoken before English," and remembered a fellow Vietnam prisoner of war, Everett Alvarez, "a brave American of Mexican descent."
McCain said that he pushed for overhauling immigration laws when "it wasn't very popular with some in my party."
Both political camps are working hard for the Latino vote. A projected 9.3 million Latinos will go to the polls this year, up from 7.6 million in 2004 and 2.5 million in 1980, according to the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC. In California, more than 2.6 million Latinos will cast votes this year, up from about 2.1 million in 2004, the institute projects.
Latinos loom as a potential swing vote, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, because they constitute an important share of the electorate in four of six states that President Bush carried by margins of 5 percentage points or fewer in 2004 -- New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
Latinos voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton over Obama by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in the Democratic primaries nationwide -- and by 67% to 32% in the California primary, according to an analysis of exit polls by the Pew Hispanic Center. A Gallup Poll last month showed Obama leading McCain among Latino voters, 62% to 29%.
"This election could well come down to how many Latinos turn out to vote," Obama said Saturday.
On the central question of providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he accused McCain of shifting positions to suit his audience.
"When he was running for his party's nomination, he walked away from that commitment," Obama said. "He said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote."
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers issued a statement later in the day calling it "audacious" for Obama to question McCain's commitment to immigration reform and criticizing Obama's record on the issue.
McCain, who faces a tough balancing act in attempting to win Latino support without losing conservative votes, said that overhauling immigration policies will be "my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow." But he said that tightening security at the borders was crucial to winning support for an overhaul.
"Many Americans, with good cause, did not believe us when we said we would secure our borders, and so we failed in our efforts," he said. "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."
He pledged to address the issue "in a humane and compassionate fashion."
"I understand these are God's children," he said.
Obama, also calling for securing the borders, called for bringing "12 million people who are here illegally out of the shadows" and putting them on a pathway to citizenship after paying a fine, learning English and going to the "back of the line."
While calling for tightening security on the borders, he said that if elected he would review the security plans.
"If we think that a wall is the sole solution to the problem, then we're not thinking it through," he said.
McCain was interrupted four times by antiwar protesters. One demonstrator shouted, "We want a peace candidate!" and was ejected from the room. "The one thing Americans want us to stop doing is yelling at each other," McCain said, to applause.
McCain, who met Saturday in Washington with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, defended his support for the war in Iraq. Obama earlier in the day visited wounded war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, calling later for a "responsible, honorable end" to the war.
McCain took Congress to task for taking a July 4 recess without completing action on a housing rescue plan, calling it "incredible that Congress should go on vacation while Americans are trying to stay in their homes."