WASHINGTON DC (CNN) – The fight for Hispanic voters takes center stage Tuesday as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama both speak separately in Washington to the League of United Latin American Citizens. It’s the second of three major Hispanic and Latino organizations the two presidential candidates are addressing this summer, and another sign of how important this key voting bloc is in the race for the White House.
President Bush won 44 percent of Hispanic and Latino voters four years ago, helping him win re-election. But only 30 percent of that demographic cast ballots for Republicans in the 2006 congressional elections. Put part of the blame for that drop on the divisive debate over immigration reform. McCain himself said earlier this year that “I think the tenor of the debate has harmed our image among Hispanics.”
The presumptive Republican nominee was one of the leaders in the Senate for immigration reform. His stance on that divisive issue hurt him with conservative voters. Nowadays he emphasizes border security first — but has continued to make a play for Hispanic voters, privately pledging to work for comprehensive immigration reform and releasing a string of Spanish-language radio ads in recent weeks.
“Many Hispanics feel that the debate on immigration has been a debate against Hispanics in general, and its made a lot of people register to vote, it’s made a lot of people become citizens so they can vote,” says CNN Spanish Correspondent Juan Carlos Lopez.
But immigration is not necessarily decisive issue for these voters. “They’re just like any other voters in America. They care about education, they care about the economy, about health care,” adds Lopez.
Polls indicate those issues favor the Democrats - but Obama is no shoo-in with Hispanics and Latinos.
Hillary Clinton beat Obama among that group in the Democratic primaries, according to exit polls.
“The first impression was they didn’t know who he was, and now they’re getting to know who he is,” says Lopez.
He seems to be making some progress in introducing himself: a Franklin and Marshall nationwide poll taken in early June among Spanish-speaking voters put Obama ahead of McCain by 8 points, and a Gallup poll conducted two weeks ago gave him a much larger lead.