WASHINGTON — Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama pitched competing economic plans to Hispanics on Tuesday, the second time in as many weeks the presidential candidates directly appealed to this critical constituency.
The rivals, to be sure, were pressing anew their support for comprehensive immigration reform, a bedrock issue for Latinos, in separate speeches to the League of United Latin American Citizens.
But each was primarily focused on making his case that he — and not his opponent — could best lead the country out of economic straits and help the middle class achieve prosperity.
It's a poignant message for the audience, an organization that advocates social and economic policies benefiting Hispanics. The economy, health care, education and providing opportunities to reach what politicians call the American dream are issues that resonate strongly with members of the fastest growing minority group, many of whom came to the United States in search of a better life.
So, both candidates sought to show they best relate to — and can help — voters struggling with gas prices, job layoffs and home foreclosures.
"At its core, the economy isn't the sum of an array of bewildering statistics," McCain said. "It's about the aspirations of the American people to build a better life for their families; dreams that begin with a job."
Obama struck a similar chord later, saying in prepared remarks that the election is about "making sure that we have a government that knows that a problem facing any American is a problem facing all Americans" and "giving all Americans a fair shot at the American dream."
Both outlined the core tenants of their economic plans as they have elsewhere this week.
"I have a plan to grow the economy, create more and better jobs, and get America moving again," McCain said, promising to help small businesses prosper, make health care more affordable, improve education and free the country from its dependence on foreign oil.
Said McCain: "If you believe you should pay more taxes, I am the wrong candidate for you. ... Jobs are the most important thing our economy creates."
The crowd greeted him warmly, applauding at several lines and giving him a respectable send-off.
Other political news of note
Lawmakers announce compromise budget deal
Bipartisan congressional negotiators unveiled a long-awaited budget framework to fund the government past mid-January and stabilize the government's finances into the near future.
- NBC/WSJ poll: Obama ends year on low note
- Biden: One year after Newtown, $100 million to mental health services
- Kerry tries to allay congressional fears over nuclear deal with Iran
- Senate approves first nominee since 'nuclear option'
- Lawmakers announce compromise budget deal
Obama, for his part, promised to cut taxes for small business owners, end tax breaks for companies that "ship jobs overseas," solve the housing crisis, help struggling homeowners, and invest in infrastructure to create new jobs in the hard-hit construction industry.
He also laced his speech with criticisms of McCain's economic plans. Accusing McCain anew of backing off comprehensive immigration reform, Obama said the Arizona senator "abandoned his courageous stance" during the primary season.
"For eight long years, we've had a president who made all kinds of promises to Latinos on the campaign trail, but failed to live up to them in the White House, and we can't afford that anymore," Obama said.
Video: McCain, Obama court Latino vote Last month, McCain and Obama pledged to make overhauling the country's immigration a priority in separate appearances to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference. McCain assured that audience that he wouldn't pursue the enforcement-only approach sought by hard-line GOP conservatives, while Obama accused McCain of walking away from comprehensive immigration reform.
Both McCain and Obama support a temporary worker program and eventual path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally. But after a comprehensive Senate bill failed last summer amid coast-to-coast public outcry that split the GOP, McCain has added that the borders must be secure first before people will accept other reforms.
The rivals also are scheduled to speak to the National Council of La Raza annual conference in San Diego later this month.
They are making aggressive plays for this fickle Democratic-leaning group that could tip the balance in battleground states of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and others with large numbers of Spanish-speaking voters.
Obama was blunt about their importance: "This election could well be decided by Latino voters." He recalled that in the 2004 presidential election 40,000 Latinos registered to vote in New Mexico didn't turn out on Election Day, and Democrat John Kerry lost the state by less than 6,000 votes.
A recent AP-Yahoo News poll showed that Obama leads McCain among Hispanics, 47 percent to 22 percent with 26 percent undecided.
Still, Obama, who is trying to become the first black president, doesn't have a lock on Hispanics. During the primaries, Hispanics preferred Clinton to Obama by nearly 2-to-1.
McCain senses an opportunity based on his links to the West and Republican inroads four years ago.
President Bush captured about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, to Democratic rival John Kerry's 58 percent, down from the 62 percent former Vice President Al Gore got in 2000. Still, in the 2006 congressional elections, Democrats scored their biggest win among Hispanics since 1996.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.