Obama invites Latinos to 'walk together' into White House
By Mary Anne Ostrom
Mercury News
Article Launched: 07/14/2008 01:32:16 AM PDT

SAN DIEGO - Just before the Fourth of July, John McCain began running ads in Spanish and English featuring his Latino roommate at the U.S. Naval Academy.

"This election, it seems to me that the other candidate has just discovered the importance of the Hispanic vote," Frank Gamboa says. "I know for John it's not political; it comes from the heart."

It was an opening salvo designed to show predominantly Democratic Latinos that the presumptive Republican nominee closely identifies with their culture in an election year in which Latino voters, by virtue of their sizable numbers in several swing states, could shape the race's outcome.

With an expected 10 million Latinos nationwide expected to cast ballots in November, the wooing is already nearing a fevered pitch.

In the first of back-to-back speeches from the two presumptive presidential nominees, Democrat Barack Obama on Sunday told more than 2,000 members of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group meeting in San Diego, that McCain "abandoned his courageous stance" of vocal support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents.

Suggesting that the Arizona senator edged away from his own proposal in a bid to appeal to conservative GOP voters in the primary, Obama said, "It's time for a president who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive (immigration) reform just because it has become politically unpopular."

McCain speaks to the group today.

While Obama leads McCain by wide margins among Latinos in national polls, the Illinois senator still finds a need to introduce himself to Latino voters, many of whom overwhelmingly sided with Hillary Clinton in primary contests and who are not as comfortable or familiar with Obama.

Helping him is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Clinton supporter who introduced Obama at a San Diego fundraiser Sunday.

Harry Pachon, president of the non-partisan Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, said while Obama is now receiving a more positive response from Latinos than in the primary, they want to hear "a multiethnic agenda and less of a biracial approach."

In the primaries, much of the attention was given to wooing African-American voters as opposed to Latinos, Pachon said.

Obama on Sunday pitched his candidacy as a chance to "change the system in this country" that has rewarded the rich and powerful while Latinos have struggled.

"And if we get to the polls this November, then we will walk together through those White House doors - and we're going to shake things up," Obama said.

Several participants at the La Raza conference said Sunday they did not know much about Obama's history or his platform but generally liked what he laid out in his speech, including education initiatives and a plan to encourage small employers to provide health care for workers with the aid of a federal tax credit.

"He gets our issues," said Roland Cardoza of San Jose, a member of La Raza's Northern California affiliate. But "he still needs to spend some time in the community getting his message across."

A Democrat, Cardoza is leaning toward Obama but won't commit until he at least hears McCain.

For McCain, today's speech is one of a series of high-profile gestures he's made in recent weeks to attract Latino voter support, including Spanish-language ads and trips to Mexico and Colombia.

"It's tough for McCain - the advantage is Obama's. But Obama does not have a hold on Latinos," said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University-Los Angeles. Latinos, particularly in crucial Southwest states, know McCain as someone who has long championed immigrants' rights, he said.

"He still gets moderate-to-high marks in terms of Latinos' perception of McCain on immigration," Regalado added.

In a conference call with reporters before the speech, Rosario Marin, a high-profile GOP California Latina who served as U.S. treasurer under President Bush, defended McCain's position on immigration, saying "he has listened very carefully to what Americans" want, a secure border, something that "is paramount if we are to have immigration reform that is successful."

She also noted that recent polls show about one in four Latino voters are undecided in the presidential contest.

In the end, the battle for Latino votes will come down to percentages.

McCain's target is to get close to the 40 percent of Latino voters Bush secured in 2004, but many doubt that will happen.

"If McCain holds up the 35 percent or so, he will have done well," Regalado said. "Obama wants to hold it to 30 percent or less."