The real story of the speeches made by Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain this week could be read on the faces of the people sitting in the back of the room. The two presidential candidates made speeches on successive days this past weekend at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza at the San Diego Convention Center. The second-story ballrooms where the two men spoke held 2,000 people. Up at the front were the VIPs: corporate sponsors and NCLR board members. But the rest of the seats were given away on a first-come, first-served basis to any of the convention's 20,000 registered attendees. The most enthusiastic supporters got on line first thing in the morning, and when the doors opened, they grabbed seats as close to the front as they could get. Failing the front, they took seats in the center. Anyone sitting at the back had shown up later, and if they were on the edges of the back, they were the last among the last—they came because it seemed like a fun thing to do.
On Monday, for McCain's speech, there were a couple dozen empty seats at those back tables. When he entered along with NCLR CEO Janet Murgía and his wife Cindy, everyone applauded politely, even those in the back. They had come to see what the Republican candidate would say about healthcare and the economy. But mostly they wanted to hear about immigration: What would he do about bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows? Would he stop the immigration-enforcement raids that deported illegal immigrants and left their legal children alone in America? Would he make immigration a top priority?
McCain had to know his audience preferred his opponent. Latino voters often break for Democrats, and recent polls show Obama with a substantial advantage among this population. But as McCain, from Arizona, knows better than many, the Latino vote may dictate this election. Latinos are a substantial minority in New Mexico, Colorado and Florida, swing states one and all.
McCain layered the front end of his nearly hour-long talk with promises to lower taxes and support small-business growth, all of which earned him polite applause from the front and center of the room, but a respectful silence from the back. This wasn't what they were interested in. After 20 minutes, McCain took el toro by the horns.
In his pre-presidential-candidate incarnation, McCain had won strong support from Latinos for his two attempts to overhaul the nation's Byzantine and intermittently draconian immigration laws, and he reminded the crowd of his work with Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Democrat from Massachusetts, in his most recent attempt in 2006. On both occasions, he'd worked against his party and lost.
So he had a new plan:
“When we have achieved our border-security goal,” he said, “we must enact and implement the other parts of practical, fair and necessary immigration policy.”
And then again, a few minutes later:
“We can't let immigrants break our laws with impunity. We can't leave our borders undefended. But these are God's children, who wanted simply to be Americans, and we cannot forget the humanity God commands of us as we seek a remedy to this problem.”
McCain tried to strengthen his point by highlighting the ways in which drug runners evade the current security apparatus, and to point out how many people have died trying to cross the border illegally. But all the audience seemed to hear was “security first.”
Up until this point, there had been a low buzz throughout the speech: whispered commentary, occasional clapping and the quiet clatter of silverware on plates. Now there was silence, and not the good kind of expectant silence, either. Faces at the back tables went stony. The temperature, as the saying goes, dropped several degrees. For those in the back, McCain was done.
“I think he avoided the questions,” said San Diegan Oscar Uribe. “I think immigration is not about drugs; it's about letting people in who want to be here. He should make it so more people can come in.”
That moment in Ballroom 20 probably won't be seen as a turning point for McCain's campaign. But it encapsulates precisely the tension inherent in his run for the White House. On one hand, he needs Latino votes. They have helped form his base of support in Arizona, where he won 75 percent of Latino votes in his last election. They have traditionally been on his side because of his history on immigration. And, quite probably, McCain actually believes in comprehensive immigration reform. Few politicians have a complete understanding of the benefits and costs of immigration to a local economy as he does.
But his conservative base cares about immigration, too, only the other way. A fervent letter campaign from the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party to members of Congress ultimately killed McCain's immigration bill in 2006. There are large segments of the Republican Party that already worry about McCain's moderate stances on several issues, not the least of which is his opinion that illegal immigrants should be given some path to citizenship. By promising security first, McCain is reassuring those members of his party, though at a high price to his other support.
Obama had no such worries when he spoke to the convention on Sunday. His base generally likes the idea of comprehensive immigration reform, so when he speaks to Latino audiences, he can support many of their goals without contradiction. Like McCain, he spoke on healthcare and providing support to small businesses, along with immigration reform, but he earned a roaring ovation from those in the back when he went off his prepared text to speak about the needs of service workers, especially women.
“In this America, there should be no second-class citizens in our workplaces,” he said. “The women who serve in hospitals, who are making the hotel beds or who are serving lunch right here in this hotel, somebody should be standing up for them, too. Somebody should be fighting for them too. And that's why I'm running for president of the United States.” No one minded that he wasn't actually in a hotel.
Obama also skipped over some of the traditional political pandering with a bald appeal to Latinos for their votes.“Make no mistake about it: The Latino community holds this election in your hands,” he said.
He cited John Kerry's defeat in New Mexico by 6,000 votes, and noted that 170,000 New Mexico Latinos aren't registered to vote. For Obama, in this population, get-out-the-vote is what it's all about.
But as important as specific policy issues are to the Latino community, it was Xavier Campos, a San Jose Democrat from the back of the room, who summed up what many in the audience told CityBeat.
“The prospect of a President Obama represents hope that somebody really, truly, of a different ethnic background has a chance to become president,” he said. “That anybody can lead this country, it doesn't matter what your background is.”