The League of United Latin American Citizens is not necessarily an audience that you would think would receive John McCain well. Its published political platform is a collection of progressive goals: affirmative action, prison reform and abolition of the death penalty, universal health care, a strong and un-privatized Social Security, and so on. The president of the organization is the founder and director of a San Antonio union. And perhaps most of all, it is an organization that, though it has long-standing ties to McCain and his Senate office because of McCain's willingness to treat immigration issues compassionately, watched its ally bail on their shared commitment to comprehensive immigration reform when his support proved too politically volatile in the Republican primary.
It is no surprise then that McCain didn't bother tailoring his speech to LULAC, delivered Tuesday afternoon at the Washington Hilton. He made vague reference to his ties to the Hispanic community as he opened ("so many friends, so many allies, so many partners") but then moved immediately into his theme for the week: the economy, and his superior ability to deal with its current weaknesses.
"The economy is slowing," admitted McCain. His diagnosis was one anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the two-party system in America could guess: raising taxes will hurt everyday Americans and will prevent businesses from hiring, fair trade is an engine of growth, etc. The majority of the speech ran along these lines. Only in closing did McCain reference the issue of immigration, saying that he tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but too many Americans didn't trust him to secure the border first. So now, he said, he plans on securing the border and then dealing with immigration afterwards, "practically" and "humanely."
As it turned out, that was enough. Attendees, almost all Democrats or former Democrats, suggested after the speech that they liked McCain's message and were open to voting for him. A married couple, Hector and Araceli Ayala, said that immigration was their most important issue, and that McCain said enough of the right things.
"Immigration is important to all Hispanics," said Hector. "We all have families trying to live the American dream." They had faith McCain would do the right thing. "He would enforce [the border] a little bit but not too much," said Araceli. Added Hector, "He would keep out the criminal element, people trying to bring in drugs."
Ultimately, they said, the fact that they are registered Democrats won't keep them from considering McCain. "People who are coming here to work, to provide for their families, they deserve a chance. This is a country of immigrants," said Hector. He believed McCain felt the same way.
Others agreed. A former Clinton supporter named Theresa Gallegos said that she appreciated how concrete and passionate McCain was. As for Obama, scheduled to speak later in the day, he doesn't have the experience to address Gallegos' major concerns, jobs and energy. "I always ask, 'Why do we change?' For Obama, he just says, 'Change.' It is just a word."
National polling suggests that Hispanics are choosing Obama over McCain by very wide margins. But that may be because Hispanics were deeply involved in the Democratic primary and don't know enough about McCain. Today's speech suggests that when Hispanic voters do get exposed to McCain, they take to him. Pursuing them further may be a valuable campaign strategy for McCain in the coming months. "I'm not a Republican so I haven't paid attention to him when he talks on the TV," said an older woman named Maria. "But it was a good speech. It was a good speech!"