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Hispanic workers listen as McCain speaks.

Borderline voters

Politics | GOP rhetoric on immigration may be turning Hispanics away from a Republican Party that they had recently begun to embrace

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

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.

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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.

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