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McCain’s Latino Tight Rope

I’ve been writing a lot about this lately, but there are just so many interesting facets to the trials and tribulations of Sen. John McCain as he tries to court both Latino voters and fiercely anti-illegal immigration conservatives. Today’s episode comes from a Newsweek article about Juan Hernandez, McCain’s Latino outreach director. Newsweek reporters have been trying for weeks to interview Hernandez, who is always just out of reach. According to the article, when the reporters suggested to the campaign that they interview Hernandez at the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials convention in Washington a couple of weeks ago — where Hernandez was a scheduled speaker — he was mysteriously pulled from the lineup. The story offers some insight into why the campaign is keeping Hernandez so close to its chest:

Hernandez is toxic to many conservatives. "He represents the opposite of everything conservative Republicans stand for," says a GOP strategist who didn’t want to be quoted by name on a sensitive topic. The blond Mexican-American (with dual citizenship) was a senior official in the government of Mexican President Vicente Fox from 2000 to 2002. His main responsibility at that time was to advocate for undocumented Mexican immigrants in America—to help them get access to education and health services, and then citizenship. In 2006, Hernandez authored "The New American Pioneers: Why Are We Afraid of Mexican Immigrants?" Some conservatives have wanted McCain to deny Hernandez any role in the campaign. "Imagine a tree and people shaking it, trying to get him out," says the strategist. "Well, that tree went through a hurricane."

But one group’s villain is another’s hero. Hernandez has good ties to the Latino community, particularly church groups. McCain needs those votes, especially in swing states like Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. "If the campaign shoves [Hernandez] to the side … it would cause an enormous amount of trepidation," says the Rev. Sam Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "He’s the only real bridge the campaign has with us."

So the campaign has someone with real illegal immigration bona fides — an important issue in the Latino community — working on Latino outreach. That sounds smart. But it appears Hernandez can’t talk to reporters — which presumably would be a big part of his job — out of fear that too many conservatives might get wind of his position and cause problems for McCain on the right. McCain needs Latinos, who comprise a big part of the population in swing states like Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. He also needs the GOP’s conservative base to vote for him. The concern is that, in some areas, the two groups could be mutually exclusive, so McCain must talk out of both sides of his mouth on the issue of immigration. Granted, McCain doesn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter, if he wants to win in November. But it’s a risky strategy that could blow up in his face if both groups view him as pandering to the other.

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