WASHINGTON — With the race for the White House grown tight, Republican presidential candidate John McCain has begun using the issue of immigration to try to dent Democrat Barack Obama's lead among Latino voters, who could prove decisive in the Southwest.
Polls have shown Obama leading McCain among Latino voters by margins of 2 to 1 or more. But immigration, an issue important to many Latinos, largely has been relegated to the back burner in the campaign.
The issue resurfaced this week as McCain issued a Spanish-language ad in the key states of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico that sought to blame Obama for the failure of congressional immigration overhaul efforts in 2007. McCain repeated that argument at an appearance before a Puerto Rican group in Florida.
McCain's assertions were denounced by Democrats and immigration organizations as misleading. Immigration hard-liners, on the other hand, were perplexed by McCain's campaign tactic.
The 30-second ad, "Which Side Are They On?" opens with a narrator saying: "Obama and his congressional allies say they are on the side of immigrants. But are they?"
The ad goes on to cite media reports that the campaign said showed Obama supported provisions that doomed passage of the immigration bill. It finishes by asking, "Is that being on our side?"
Campaigning in Florida this week, McCain again accused Obama of helping scuttle immigration reform last year.
"Sen. Obama proposed amendments that would have killed the legislation," McCain said in Orlando, speaking Monday before the Puerto Rican Assn. of Central Florida. "I fought for it."
McCain cosponsored a failed immigration overhaul bill in 2006 with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Perhaps fearful of conservative anger over his immigration stance, McCain conspicuously avoided getting involved in talks on the 2007 bill.
Democrats and immigration groups also pointed out that in January, during the GOP presidential primary, McCain dramatically scaled back his support for immigration overhaul efforts.
"Enough is enough," Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement about the ad. "The man who said he would vote against his own immigration bill during the Republican presidential debates, who was unwilling to stand up to his own party when they approved an anti-immigrant platform, cannot attack Democrats on immigration in Spanish while pandering to the extreme right . . . of the Republican Party in English."
Although 40% of Latino voters backed President Bush in 2004, a conservative Republican backlash against illegal immigration has hurt McCain, who has garnered only 20% to 30% of Latino support in recent polls.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a group that advocates for immigrant rights, called the ad "stunning in its misrepresentation."
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors greater limits on immigration, noted that McCain had dropped his support for the overhaul bill he once sponsored.
"How can McCain say he no longer supports this legislation and then turn around and attack his opponent and say he undermined it?" Stein asked. "It's enough to make you cynical."
Both McCain and Obama voted in favor of the 2006 and 2007 immigration bills. If passed, the measures would have given many illegal immigrants legal status, created guest worker programs and added border security.
The McCain ad charged that Obama proposed or voted for several changes to the 2007 bill that caused its failure. The ad says: "The result: No guest worker program. No path to citizenship. No secure borders. No reform."
The 2007 bill was a fragile compromise among a bipartisan team of senators who worked closely with the White House. Their aim was to create a bill that would earn enough Republican support to pass, so it took a harder line than the failed 2006 bill written by McCain and Kennedy.
To protect the bill, the bipartisan group behind it agreed to fend off amendments that would change it.
As the measure followed a contentious path, Obama supported several amendments that conservatives said made their support impossible. And despite the late addition of extra enforcement provisions favored by conservatives, several key Republicans eventually withdrew their support. Many observers attribute the bill's failure to their opposition.
"To say that Obama and his congressional allies were ready to block immigration reform is an outrageous misrepresentation of why it failed," Sharry said. "It failed because Republicans opposed it."