Video: McCain pushes trade in Colombia

updated 7/3/2008 12:09:36 PM ET 2008-07-03T16:09:36

John McCain was discussing the thorny issue of immigration Thursday with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, as the Republican presidential candidate wrapped up a three-day visit to Colombia and Mexico designed to promote free trade and burnish his foreign policy credentials.

McCain, whose home state of Arizona borders Mexico, began the day at Mexico City's famed Basilica de Guadalupe, the country's holiest site for Catholics. Hispanics and Catholics are expected to be key swing voters in the November election against Democrat Barack Obama, who has also worked to woo the same groups.

The Republican received a blessing from the basilica's monsignor, laid a wreath of white roses at the altar and stood atop the Papal balcony there. He was accompanied by President George W. Bush's brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was visiting Mexico on a business trip.

McCain was meeting with Calderon to discuss illegal immigration, a key issue for Hispanic voters but a sore subject for many conservative voters who oppose efforts to allow some of the roughly 11 million such immigrants to eventually gain U.S. citizenship. McCain backs increased security along the U.S.-Mexico border to block the flow of undocumented workers.

Path to White House cuts through middle
Both Obama and McCain have been reaching to the center to appeal to undecided moderate voters, who are more likely to be Hispanic, Catholic and married with children than other voters. A recent AP-Yahoo News poll finds that 15 percent call themselves moderates and are not solidly supporting a candidate.

Some 39 percent of voters called themselves Democratic, 29 percent Republican, and 32 percent independent in the June 13-23 survey. That Democratic edge suggests Obama may be less dependent on votes in the middle than McCain, but still the likeliest path to the White House cuts through the center of the electorate.

Obama on Thursday was holding a town hall meeting with veterans in Fargo, North Dakota to discuss better treatment and benefits for military veterans and their families. His campaign has focused on patriotic themes leading up to Friday's Independence Day holiday.

McCain, meanwhile, was unexpectedly put on the defensive at a news conference in Cartagena, Colombia, on Wednesday, when he was forced to respond to a claim by a Republican Senate colleague that the presidential candidate had roughed up an associate of Nicaragua's leftist President Daniel Ortega two decades ago.

"Simply not true," McCain said of the allegation by Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. The two have been deeply at odds over federal spending. McCain's campaign has been dogged by latent concerns about his hot temper.

Video: From Colombia, McCain keeps eye on campaign Cochran aide Margaret McPhillips said the senator went into detail about the incident in an interview with a Mississippi newspaper to "make the point that, though Sen. McCain has had problems with his temper, he has overcome them."

In Colombia, McCain praised the country's conservative president for squeezing drug barons, toured a harbor to watch narcotics interdiction programs and spoke out for free trade agreements with Washington's neighbors in the Western Hemisphere.

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The trade pacts have emerged as a sensitive subject in the U.S., as Americans grapple with soaring energy costs, a crumbling mortgage and housing market and growing unemployment. Unimpeded hemispheric trade is an area of sharp contrasts between the presidential rivals, with McCain blasting Obama for opposing existing treaties while leaving himself open to criticism from voters worried about outsourcing of U.S. jobs.

McCain has promoted himself as better equipped than Obama to deal with foreign policy issues and used his trip to Colombia to press President Alvaro Uribe to work to improve his country's human rights record. But he also praised Plan Colombia, a program the U.S. government launched 10 years ago to reduce cocaine production in the country.

Obama this week has been campaigning on issues meant to combat impressions he is elitist and not patriotic. He prodded Americans to greater public service work and promoted the use of additional federal funds to religious groups that tackle social problems.

On Wednesday the Democrat stood before a boisterous University of Colorado crowd — in Colorado Springs, a city known as a bastion of conservatism — and said that the quiet following Friday's Independence Day holiday would be a good time for every person to consider how they can contribute "to our most pressing national challenges" — whether in the military, overseas or just next door.

Obama's choice of Christian conservative Colorado Springs for his visit showed the degree to which he is courting Republican religious voters and trying to make McCain compete for their affections.

The Illinois senator spoke about the expansion of government national service programs, which he first unveiled in December, that would cost $3.5 billion a year. His campaign said he would fund the spending with some of the savings from ending the war in Iraq and by canceling a new tax break for multinational corporations.

Other highlights include increasing the all-volunteer military and doubling the size of the Peace Corps.

Obama's call echoed George W. Bush's "love a neighbor like you'd like to be loved yourself," an enduring staple of the Republican president's political speeches of the last eight years.

His campaign said the focus on service was meant not to recall Bush but to reach back to President John F. Kennedy's generation-captivating address that urged Americans to ask what they can do for their country instead of what the U.S. can do for them, or President Bill Clinton's legacy of creating AmeriCorps to tackle U.S. poverty issues.

Obama also addressed the United Steel Workers union's annual conference in Las Vegas via satellite and burnishing his appeal to the military with a planned visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy and Peterson Air Force Base, both based in Colorado Springs.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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