ABC News’ Bret Hovell and Jennifer Duck report: Senators John McCain and Barack Obama did not encounter each other when they spoke back to back at a conference of elected Latinos in Washington, D.C., Saturday, but they traded verbal barbs on the thorny issue of immigration just a few minutes apart.
McCain spoke first to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and after talking about energy independence and the current economic woes in the United States, was asked about the priority of reforming immigration to his plans for his first 100 days in office if elected.
“It will be my top priority — yesterday, today and tomorrow,” McCain said to applause.
Speaking after McCain, Obama said that the Arizona Republican and presumptive Republican nominee walked away from immigration reform.
“He deserves great credit as a champion of comprehensive [immigration] reform,” Obama said, speaking from the same rostrum McCain had utilized earlier. “I know he talked about that when he just spoke before you, but what he didn’t mention is that when he was running for his party’s nomination, he walked away from that commitment.”
McCain, who championed a comprehensive reform with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., in 2007, changed the emphasis of his immigration plan when speaking about it before sharply partisan audiences, regularly stressing border security as the first step to a complete approach to the problem.
Obama, D-Ill., the Democratic nominee-in-waiting, also was asked where he would rank immigration reform on his list of first 100 day priorities.
"It will be one of my priorities on my first day," Obama said, rather than the ‘top’ priority McCain had promised. "Because this has been an issue we have demagogued. There’s been a lot of politics around it but we haven’t been serious about solving the problem. And I want to solve this problem."
McCain’s campaign fired back at Obama’s criticism of McCain’s immigration rhetoric with a statement e-mailed to reporters. It said, in part, that Obama has not reached out the way McCain has.
“The reality is that Barack Obama has never reached across the aisle to lead in a bipartisan fashion on an issue of major importance to the American people when his own political interests were at risk,” the statement read.
Both candidates are trying to reach out to the Latino vote during this election cycle, but Obama seems to be in a better position than McCain. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll showed Obama with a 71 percent to 21 percent lead over McCain among Latino voters, some 8 percent of the electorate.
McCain was received with a polite standing ovation when he was introduced, and a sizable portion of the audience cheered when one questioner mentioned the prospect of a McCain presidency.
But Obama’s reception was more raucous. He entered the room to cheers and chants of his name.
That both candidates addressed the NALEO conference speaks to the importance of the voting bloc.
“We can do this, but I can’t do this on my own,” Obama told the crowd. “I need your help. This election could well come down to how many Latinos turn out to vote.”
“Thank you for all you do, for representing the hopes and dreams of so many American citizens,” McCain said, concluding his remarks. “And I’m grateful; I congratulate you on your success. Literally everyone in this audience is what America is all about.”
ABC News’s John Hendren contributed to this report.