When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., stopped for lunch at Blake's Restaurant in Manchester, N.H., last summer, his presidential campaign was imploding. The candidate faced dwindling campaign funds and a growing problem: fierce opposition among many Republicans to the comprehensive immigration reform bill he was sponsoring in the Senate.
Across the restaurant sat Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a presidential contender with a strident anti-illegal-immigration platform and the slogan: "This is our country-Take it back." Tancredo virulently opposed McCain's bill to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, calling the plan amnesty. Spotting his opponent and an opportunity at the restaurant, Tancredo sent the embattled McCain a gift: a platter of nachos.
From his office in Pennsylvania, Luis Cortes wasn't amused. After reading about the impromptu ribbing in New Hampshire, the prominent Hispanic minister prepared a gift of his own for Tancredo: a bilingual Bible and a Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Noting that the Bible and the dictionary define amnesty as unconditional pardon, Cortes wrote: "Amnesty is a free pass and a place in the front of the line. This Senate compromise is not amnesty."
The brief summer exchange drew little attention, but a year later the underlying tension over immigration looms large for the remaining presidential contenders. With Hispanics representing the largest minority group in the United States, Hispanic voters concerned about immigration could represent a critical voting bloc in the November elections.
For Democrats, wooing Latino voters has proved easy. For McCain, the hill is steeper: While the senator has been personally popular with Hispanic voters in the past, and while President George W. Bush garnered more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, the harsh tone of the immigration debate among some conservatives may be eroding GOP support among Hispanics.
For Hispanic evangelicals, the angst runs particularly deep: Many share stalwart conservative beliefs such as fighting abortion and preserving marriage, but also view pursuing immigration reform as a moral issue. They face a stark question: Which moral principles matter most, and how do they decide?
Throughout this year's primary season, Democrats have vastly outstripped Republicans in attracting Latino voters. By mid-April, some 78 percent of Hispanics who had cast ballots in primaries had voted Democratic, according to the New Democrat Network.
Among those voters, Sen. Hillary Clinton, R-N.Y., outpaced Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., by 2-1 in several states. In at least three states-California, Texas, and New Mexico-Clinton likely wouldn't have won without Hispanic support. (Even in Obama's home state of Illinois, Clinton drew half the Latino vote.)
Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have garnered Latino support for years, but the senator also pursued an aggressive outreach campaign to Latino voters through canvassing efforts and Spanish-language media. She picked up key Hispanic endorsements early on, like Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Obama has pursued similar avenues of Hispanic outreach, but not as aggressively. For example, after focusing on early primary states, Obama set up a field office in Los Angeles just days before the California primary.
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat and a point man to the Hispanic community for the Obama campaign, bemoaned Obama's weaker outreach to Latino voters. "Can you blame a community of people that have not been actively courted for not responding to his campaign?" he told the Chicago Tribune after Super Tuesday.
Since then, Obama has increased outreach efforts to Hispanic voters, and many of his policy positions resonate with Latinos: Like many voters, Hispanics cite the economy and health care as chief concerns, and many favor universal health-care plans like the ones touted by Obama and Clinton.
McCain has met mixed success with Latino voters during the primary season. In Florida's February contest, more than half of all Latino voters backed McCain. In such an important swing state, that support could prove crucial in November.
But in McCain's home state of Arizona, only 7 percent of the Republican electorate was Hispanic in the February primary, compared to 18 percent of the more numerous Democratic primary voters. In California, Hispanics accounted for 30 percent of the large Democratic turnout but just 13 percent of Republican primary voters.
Latinos have historically favored Democrats, but Republicans made significant inroads with the group in recent years. In 2000 Bush aggressively courted Hispanics and picked up a record 35 percent of their vote. By 2004, the president had garnered more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.
But the trend sputtered in the 2006 congressional elections when Republicans gained only 29 percent of the Hispanic vote. While several factors may have contributed to the decline, political observers agree that a rancorous immigration debate among Republicans didn't help.
For example, in December 2005 the House passed a measure that would have made it a federal crime for churches, social service agencies, and other groups to offer services or assistance to illegal immigrants. The Senate didn't pass the measure, but Hispanic churches offering basic help to immigrants called the legislation damaging.
Over the next two years, conservative rhetoric grew sharper and more offensive to many Hispanics. Last summer, a McCain-sponsored reform measure failed, effectively delaying immigration reform until the next presidential administration.
For Wilfredo De Jesus, that's discouraging. De Jesus is vice president of social justice for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), a Hispanic evangelical organization serving 18,000 churches. De Jesus is also pastor of New Life Covenant Church in Chicago-a 1,000-member Hispanic congregation in the Assemblies of God denomination.
Politically, the conservative pastor says he's also made up his mind about his presidential vote: He's supporting Obama.
De Jesus told WORLD that he and other Hispanic evangelicals are concerned about pro-life and pro-marriage issues, but they are also concerned about immigration reform. Deporting an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants is unrealistic, he says: "I don't support amnesty. But I support a process for the 12 million people who are already here, even if there are penalties."
Though McCain sponsored comprehensive immigration reform in the past, the senator promised conservatives earlier this year that he would secure the borders before pursuing reform again. De Jesus fears McCain is caving to conservatives who oppose reform.
De Jesus likes Obama's immigration position, which is similar to the reform McCain has proposed. He also likes the way Obama talks about faith: "We [Hispanic evangelicals] normally would lean toward the GOP, but in Obama we have a candidate who is a Christian, but also wants to fight for immigration. And we have Republicans who don't want to."
That tension puts Hispanic evangelicals "between the proverbial rock and a hard place," says Samuel Rodriguez, president of NHCLC. Rodriguez says Hispanic evangelicals disagree with Democratic candidates on a number of moral issues, but also resonate with their immigration stance: "At the end of the day, we're going to have to ask ourselves, 'Does immigration trump our biblical worldview?'"
Rodriquez favors border security and stopping illegal immigration, but he also favors a path for illegal immigrants to submit to the process of becoming citizens or guest workers. For Christians, interacting with outsiders has a moral dimension, he says: "How you treat these 12 million people speaks to the spiritual state of our nation."
Rodriguez says he is pleased with McCain's overall position on immigration and thinks the senator deserves "a serious look" from Hispanics. But he's dismayed with the tone in the broader Republican Party.
Luis Cortes, the Pennsylvania pastor and president of Esperanza, a faith-based Hispanic community organization, says he knows other Hispanic pastors who agree. "I have had ministers who have been Republicans all their lives tell me they're switching [to the Democratic Party]," he told WORLD.
Cortes says McCain's biggest challenge in attracting Hispanic evangelicals may be battling the harsher tone from other Republicans. "Because people don't know how to nuance their language, it turns from an anti-illegal to an anti-Hispanic conversation," he says. "We're the new boogey man."