Addressing the nation's largest Latino rights group today, Sen. John McCain will accuse Sen. Barack Obama of distorting his record and remind Latino voters that he championed immigration reform legislation that ultimately failed in Congress last year.
McCain and Obama are locked in a fierce battle for Latino voters — a Democratic-leaning minority group that could have considerable influence in key battleground states this November.
Obama leads McCain among Latinos by 30 percentage points, according to a recent Gallup poll, despite heavy support from Latinos for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
Making his case to the National Council of La Raza today, the Republican presumptive nominee will remind Latino voters that he supported the failed immigration reform legislation in the Senate last year — a move that cost him politically among the conservative base of the Republican Party.
"At a moment of great difficulty in my campaign, when my critics said it would be political suicide for me to do so, I helped author with Senator [Ted] Kennedy comprehensive immigration reform, and fought for its passage not once but twice," McCain said Monday at a conference of the National Council of La Raza in San Diego.
"I cast a lot of hard votes, as did the other Republicans and Democrats who joined our bipartisan effort … I took my lumps for it without complaint. My campaign was written off as a lost cause. I did so not just because I believed it was the right thing to do for Hispanic Americans. It was the right thing to do for all Americans, that's why I did it," McCain said.
During the Republican primary, McCain's rivals and conservative commentators sharply criticized him for the immigration bill, repeatedly reminding voters he co-authored the failed bi-partisan legislation with liberal icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Both McCain and Obama supported immigration reform legislation that ultimately failed in Congress in 2007 following an immense pushback from conservative groups and right-leaning Republicans.
McCain, Obama Fight for Hispanic Voters
In his remarks today, McCain is expected to hit back against Obama's charge in recent appeals to Latino groups that McCain turned his back on comprehensive immigration reform.
"[Obama] suggested in his speeches there and here, that I turned my back on comprehensive reform out of political necessity. I feel I must, as they say, correct the record," McCain said.
McCain accused Obama of voting for amendments that, the Republican argues, killed the Senate's 2007 effort at an immigration overhaul.
"Senator Obama declined to cast some of those tough votes. He voted for and even sponsored amendments that were intended to kill the legislation, amendments that Senator Kennedy and I voted against. I never ask for any special privileges from anyone just for having done the right thing. Doing my duty to my country is its own reward. But I do ask for your trust that when I say, I remain committed to fair, practical and comprehensive immigration reform, I mean it. I think I have earned that trust," McCain said.
Following intense criticism from conservatives for his immigration stance last year, McCain began pushing for "border security first" legislation that advocated securing the border before establishing a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants — a move that may have alienated many Latino voters.
Asked during a Republican primary debate in January if he would vote for his original immigration reform proposal if it came to the Senate floor, McCain said, "No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the border secured first."
Latino Rights Groups Urge McCain to Clarify Immigration Position
A coalition of Latino rights group advocating immigration reform that would provide a path toward citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants have urged McCain to clarify his position on immigration reform.
"There is confusion as to whether or not he is the same John McCain we knew a year or two ago or someone who has shifted as a result of the very ugly rhetoric and dynamics on this issue within his party," said Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza Monday.
Muñoz argued McCain's previous emphasis on border security and enforcement worry many Latinos concerned about family members being separated during U.S. raids on illegal immigrants.
"The concern is really about whether or not he can stand up to his party," she said.
On Monday McCain continued to emphasize border security as a trigger for comprehensive reform legislation that includes a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"We had a plan, and still do, that is comprehensive, but we do need to have our borders secure, which we can do in fairly rapid fashion," McCain said, "So if we're going to pass the [comprehensive immigration reform] legislation, we have to give the American people the confidence that we're not only securing our borders because of the issue of illegal immigration, but my friends you know what is happening with the drug trafficking across our border which is killing young Americans."
Obama Slammed McCain at Latino Conference
Obama accused McCain Sunday of abandoning his effort toward comprehensive immigration reform during the Republican primaries to appeal to the conservative wing of the GOP.
"McCain used to buck his party on immigration by fighting for comprehensive reform – and I admired him for it," Obama told a conference of the National Council of La Raza Sunday in San Diego. "But when he was running for his party's nomination, he abandoned his courageous stance, and said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote. Well, I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a President who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular."
Obama said, "we need a practical solution for the problem of 12 million people who are here without documentation – many of whom have lived and worked here for years. That's why we need to offer those who are willing to make amends a pathway to citizenship."
The presumptive Democratic nominee, who lost Hispanics to Clinton in the Democratic primaries, focused his speech on his support for creating a path to citizenship for current illegal immigrants, creating new jobs and expanding health care coverage.
Hispanics Fastest Growing Minority Groups
Over the past decade, Hispanics have become the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group. However many Hispanics fail to vote — 58 percent of eligible Hispanics were registered to vote in 2004, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 69 percent of black voters and 75 percent of white voters.
Urging them to turnout to vote in November, Obama argued Latinos could be the deciding factor in who wins the White House.
"Make no mistake about it: The Latino community holds this election in its hands," Obama said Sunday at a conference of the National Council of La Raza. "Some of the closest contests this November are going to be in states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico — states with large Latino populations."
Obama noted Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., lost New Mexico in the 2004 presidential election by fewer than 6,000 votes.
As the general election battle heats up, the Democrats and Republicans are focused on winning key battleground states with heavy Latino populations, including New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and Florida.
The Obama campaign will begin to run ads next week on Spanish-language radio stations in several key battleground states.
ABC News' Gary Langer, Teddy Davis, and Jake Tapper contributed to this report.