McCain Must Appease both Hispanics and Conservatives on Immigration

McCain faces a tougher struggle on immigration than Democrats

All three of the presidential candidates voted in support of building a fence along the border.

All three of the presidential candidates voted in support of building a fence along the border.

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The Democrats have done their own dance. In an October debate, Clinton waffled on whether she backed driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, first declaring her support and then her opposition. Obama pounced, stating, "I can't tell whether she was for it or against it."

Clinton and Obama, over objections from the liberal base, both voted for the controversial 700-mile-long border fence in 2006. And in wooing working-class voters, they have argued for tougher sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers. But they have also bashed the administration's execution of the border fence, the construction of which has stalled, and downplayed their votes in favor of it, especially in Texas, where it is reviled. In arguing for a smarter immigration bill in Texas, Obama stated that the fence is "not going to work."

The Democrats have taken little heat in the primary season for their views on immigration. Indeed, the biggest clash between the two is who will secure sweeping immigration reform fastest once elected president. McCain, however, is still under fire. In February, after essentially sealing the nomination, he heard audience cries of "No amnesty" during his speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, blasts McCain's rhetorical shift as "transparently insincere."

Branding. Should rank-and-file conservatives feel the same way, it'll spell trouble for McCain on Election Day. "Will McCain be able to get that final portion of conservatives to come out and vote for him?" Krikorian asks. "I think the answer is probably not. And immigration is the issue." But the issue cuts both ways. McCain is a "formidable candidate in the Latino community," given his long-standing support of immigrant rights, says Cecilia Muñoz, a senior vice president at the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights advocacy group for Hispanics. Muñoz, who officially remains neutral but personally volunteers for Obama, argues that he's the only Republican who could draw a significant number of Hispanic votes from the Democratic nominee. "McCain is really uniquely positioned to do what George Bush did, which is capture 40 percent of the Latino vote." That's a number that some pollsters say Republicans will need to win the White House. But she adds that McCain's promise is undercut by his rhetorical shift to the right and the fact that among Hispanics, "the Republican brand has been badly damaged" by its association with hard-liners like Rep. Tom Tancredo, who warns that immigration is turning America into a balkanized, bilingual nation.

Even the faith of evangelical Hispanics is shaken when it comes to the GOP. Calling some of the rhetoric xenophobic and nativist, Samuel Rodriguez, president of the conservative National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, doubts that Hispanics will strongly support McCain, because the GOP did not "repudiate the venom and verbiage coming out of [party hard-liners]."

GOP analysts retort that any anti-immigrant threads in the party are exaggerated. After all, Tancredo's presidential run collapsed even before the Iowa caucus. And Romney, who took one of the toughest stances on immigration during his campaign, also failed. Of course, Hispanic voters are far from monolithic, and border security resonates with just about everyone.

GOP strategists hope that McCain can avoid sacrificing Hispanics for conservatives. But insiders believe McCain would be wise to court the conservatives. "They are the ones who go out and knock on doors and hand out fliers at strip malls," says Republican strategist Greg Mueller. "They get the vote out." The conservative vote alone, though, won't be enough. It's up to McCain's camp to figure out a message that will bring Hispanics and conservatives together.