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Obama Attacks McCain's Record On Immigration

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

When Republican presidential candidate John McCain steps before Latino voters, one of his strengths is his record on immigration reform. McCain favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and he paid a heavy political price for that. His opponent, Barack Obama, looks at that same record and sees a weakness for Senator McCain. Obama emphasized that record as both candidates spoke before a meeting of Latino leaders; it was called LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: On immigration reform, Obama and McCain are very similar. Both favor a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Last year, McCain took on his own party to push a bill in the Senate that did just that. It didn't pass. And yesterday McCain explained why.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Many Americans, with good cause, didn't believe us when we said we would secure our borders, so we failed in our efforts. We must prove to them that we can and will secure our borders first while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Obama spoke later in the day and took a swipe at McCain, who while never abandoning his commitment to legalization has begun emphasizing the importance of securing the borders.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I want to give Senator McCain credit because he used to buck his party on immigration. He fought for comprehensive immigration reform. A lot of the bills that I cosponsored he was the lead. I admired him for it. But when he started 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.

LIASSON: Obama is referring to this Republican primary debate, when L.A. Times reporter Janet Hook pressed McCain repeatedly.

(Soundbite of debate)

Ms. JANET HOOK (L.A. Times): If your original proposal came to a vote in the Senate floor, would you vote for it?

Senator MCCAIN: It won't. It won't. That's why we went through the debate...

Ms. HOOK: But what if it did?

Senator MCCAIN: No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the borders secured first.

LIASSON: McCain committed the cardinal sin of politics. He answered a hypothetical question. And that allowed Obama to exploit McCain's ongoing political difficulty with this issue. McCain is still caught between the Republican Party's conservative base, which vehemently opposes a path to citizenship for illegals, and Hispanics, who generally favor comprehensive reform.

In his speech yesterday, Obama said he had reached across the aisle to fight for the same bill as McCain. But South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who worked with McCain on the immigration compromise, says Obama is exaggerating his role in the bipartisan efforts that led to the bill.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Senator Obama came in a couple of times, had a few good ideas, did the photo op, then when the bill came to the floor he folded like a cheap suit.

LIASSON: To the McCain campaign, Obama is trying to get credit for a bipartisan compromise that he supported but also tried to torpedo by sponsoring or voting for labor union-backed amendments that if passed would have weakened support for the bill.

Yesterday's sparring just underscored the importance of the Hispanic vote this year. During the Democratic primaries, Obama lost this vote to Hillary Clinton, indicating he might have a problem with Hispanics. But current polls don't show that at all. In the latest Wall Street Journal poll he leads McCain among Hispanics by nearly two to one. Still, voters like Carolina Pena came to LULAC yesterday undecided.

Ms. CAROLINA PENA: I actually voted for Obama in the primaries. I think I just kind of jumped on the bandwagon and sort of voted because I really like his personality. And I always say I like him with my heart and I like McCain with my head.

LIASSON: Pena's family waited five years to emigrate legally from Ecuador. She knows all about the political risks McCain took with his own party on immigration.

Ms. PENA: He has had kind of a long record of commitments to this population, which is very important. As far as Obama, I haven't seen very much. I haven't heard too much either.

LIASSON: Hispanic voters make up only 9 percent of the national electorate, but in battleground states like New Mexico they are as much as 37 percent. And that's why Obama said yesterday this election could very well be decided by Latino voters.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.