The battle for the Hispanic vote is on.
Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama plan back-to-back appearances Saturday before the annual meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The non-partisan group represents more than 5,500 officeholders and the fastest-growing voting bloc in the nation.
In a report issued Thursday, the group, known as NALEO, predicted a record-breaking turnout of at least 9.2 million Hispanic voters this fall. They could be key to winning swing states such as New Mexico, Florida and Colorado.
Both candidates have strong selling points for Hispanic voters, but neither has closed the deal, backers say. Traditionally Democratic, Hispanic voters helped give George W. Bush the presidency in 2000, when exit polls showed Bush won 35% of their votes. In 2004, he improved that number to 40%.
This year, the Hispanic vote is "very much up for grabs," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who supports McCain.
"Latinos really represent the political swing vote," agreed NALEO President Adolfo Carrio´n, a Democrat who is for Obama.
Hispanic voters were crucial to McCain's victory in the Republican presidential nomination contest, the NALEO report on voting patterns found. McCain won 54% of the Hispanic votes in the Florida primary, the report said, helping him win a decisive contest in the nomination fight.
Republican officials at the conference said the Arizona senator still needs to convince Hispanics that he hasn't backed away from his support for immigration reform and that he's willing to wind down the war in Iraq.
"We're tired of the war," said Luz Urbáez Weinberg, a Republican commissioner in Aventura, Fla.
Her constituents resent hearing about schools, roads and bridges being built in Iraq, she said. "The very things that are being implemented over there are missing here," she said.
Fernando Treviño, a school board member from East Chicago, Ill., says he wants McCain's assurance that he hasn't abandoned his support for a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. "He needs to state his position," Treviño said.
McCain co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that included a legalization program. He took a lower-profile role in the fight to pass the immigration bill, however, after he embarked on his presidential bid.
After it fell short in the Senate, McCain said he would focus first on securing borders.
Martinez defended his Senate colleague, saying in an interview that McCain is "as committed as he ever was" to immigration reform. "He's just acknowledging reality," Martinez said.
For Obama, the challenge is wooing a constituency that heavily favored his rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., in the primaries.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, an Obama supporter, says the Illinois senator "has all the right positions" to appeal to Hispanics, but says he'll have to work hard to win their trust.
"You can't underestimate John McCain with Hispanics," Richardson said. "He's got a good record on immigration."
Richardson recommends that Obama put a "laser-like focus" on four states were the Hispanic vote could tilt the outcome: Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico. Victories there would provide "a very sound insurance policy" should Obama lose Ohio or Pennsylvania, Richardson said.
A coolness toward Obama was palpable at a NALEO luncheon Thursday.
When several Democratic speakers announced their support for Obama, "I was the only person at my table clapping," said Michele Martinez, a City Council member from Santa Ana, Calif. "There's still some sensitivity in the Latino community."
Patricia Lopez, a Democratic member of the Phoenix school board, said she will probably vote for Obama. But, she said, "it's really hard" because of the loyalty she feels toward Clinton. "She was my hero," Lopez said.
Delia Garcia, a Democratic state representative from Kansas who had supported Clinton, said she has switched allegiances to Obama. She said most Hispanic Democrats will follow suit if Obama makes more of an effort to reach out to Latino voters and make Latinos "part of his top staff."
Obama recently hired Patty Solis Doyle, a longtime Clinton aide who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Doyle, who left her post as Clinton's campaign manager after a staff shake-up in February, is to serve as chief of staff to Obama's vice presidential nominee.