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Two Speeches — One Topic

SAN DIEGO — The next few days will likely make the Tom Tancredos and the Lou Dobbs’ of the world cringe. Sen. John McCain, the likely GOP nominee, appeared today at the conference of National Council of La Raza — which bills itself as "the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States." Tonight, the Arizona senator is scheduled to travel to Albuquerque for a fund-raiser, before hosting a town hall meeting there tomorrow.

McCain has had to delicately balance his appeals to Latinos — now 15 percent of the population and the nation’s fastest-growing minority group — for they are expected to be a key swing voting bloc in November. Here in California, Latinos comprise nearly 36 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In New Mexico, Latinos make up a whopping 44 percent. While nobody really expects California to swing to McCain in November, the McCain campaign hopes to keep New Mexico in play. President George W. Bush won the state by only 6,000 votes in 2004 — after Al Gore carried it by just 366 votes in 2000. A recent SurveyUSA poll in New Mexico found that among likely voters, McCain trails Obama by three percentage points — well within the 4.6 percent margin of error. However, Obama’s lead grows to an eye-popping 29 points among Latinos.

Sen. Barack Obama spoke here yesterday, and he hammered McCain for backtracking on comprehensive immigration reform:

"McCain used to buck his party on immigration by fighting for comprehensive reform – and I admired him for it. But when he was running for his party’s nomination, he abandoned his courageous stance, and said that he wouldn’t even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote. Well, I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time for a President who won’t walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular."

McCain — whose speech was interrupted by hecklers who yelled "Bring the troops home, end the war now," before being escorted out of the room — took issue with Obama’s characterization of his record:

"I spoke recently at both the [National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials] and [League of United Latin American Citizens] conferences, as did Sen. Obama. I did not use those occasions to criticize Sen. Obama. I would prefer not to do so today. But he suggested in his speeches there and here that I turned my back on comprehensive reform out of political necessity. I feel I must, as they say, correct the record. At a moment of great difficulty in my campaign, when my critics said it would be political suicide for me to do so, I helped author, with Sen. Kennedy. comprehensive immigration reform, and fought for its passage. I cast a lot of hard votes, as did the other Republicans and Democrats who joined our bipartisan effort. … Sen. Obama declined to cast some of those tough votes. He voted for and even sponsored amendments that were intended to kill the legislation, amendments that Sen. Kennedy and I voted against."

Perhaps most interesting, McCain used his speech today to expand on the humanitarian aspect of the immigration problem, a theme that he touched on at the LULAC conference. He quoted from a newspaper report that documented some of the fatalities along the Mexican border:

"We have economic and humanitarian responsibilities as well, and they require no less dedication from us in meeting them.

Several years ago, the leading newspaper in my state published an article putting faces on the tragic human costs of illegal immigration, and I would like to briefly quote from it:

‘Maria Hernandez Perez was No. 93. She was almost 2. She had thick brown hair and eyes the color of chocolate.

‘Kelia Velazquez-Gonzales, 16, carried a Bible in her backpack. She was No. 109

‘John Doe, No. 143, died with a rosary encircling his neck. His eyes were wide open.’

We can’t let immigrants break our laws with impunity. We can’t leave our borders undefended. But these people are God’s children, who wanted simply to be Americans. And we cannot forget the humanity God commands of us as we seek a remedy to this problem."

McCain clearly has two different speeches about illegal immigration. When speaking before Latino-dominated audiences, McCain focuses on compassion and humanitarianism, while mentioning the need for secure borders. Everywhere else, it is the reverse — he focuses on secure borders with a passing mention of humanitarianism.

McCain’s campaign schedule has been full of speeches in front of Latino organizations lately. Those conservatives who favor a get-tough, zero tolerance approach to illegal immigration — a key element of the GOP base — are surely not missing this fact. If McCain continues to reach out to Latinos as enthusiastically as he has recently, it’s hard to imagine how he can maintain his credibility with those Republicans for whom securing the border remains the top issue.

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