Navarrette: Hispanics: McCain’s secret weapon?by Ruben Navarrette Jr. on May. 21, 2008, under Opinion
War hero persona, immigration stance seen as pluses
For many conservatives, John McCain is not their favorite Republican.
They think he’s built a career at their expense, painting them as fools and bigots. They resent his holier-than-thou attitude. And they’re not inclined to trust anyone who has been so fawned over by the national media.
Curiously, a lot of liberal Democrats feel the same way about McCain.
He isn’t their favorite Republican either, but it’s because they know he’ll be tough to beat in November. They would have preferred to run against someone more extreme and easier to demonize. That’s not John McCain.
I first met McCain 10 years ago when I was a working at The Arizona Republic.
What I remember is that, in a political climate where so many elected officials – Republican and Democrat alike – were wearing themselves out pandering to racists who demanded action on illegal immigration, McCain was one of the few who didn’t play that game.
In 1998, while Texas Gov. George W. Bush made headlines for earning an impressive 49 percent of the Hispanic vote in his re-election, McCain walked off with an unheard-of 65 percent in his Senate re-election bid. Six years later, he did even better, earning about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Most political observers don’t expect McCain to match those numbers in a national election, but half of that – 35 percent – is a definite possibility. With that kind of support among Hispanics, McCain could win the White House.
And so Democrats are doing everything they can to distort McCain’s record. Some are actually accusing McCain of not doing enough for immigration reform.
In fact, they might even try to compare McCain to nativists such as Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who competed with the Arizona senator for the GOP nomination.
Good luck. The two men seem to detest one another. They even tangled last summer when McCain dismissed Tancredo’s views on what makes someone an American as “beyond my realm of thinking.”
Hispanics in Arizona who have known McCain weren’t surprised by that exchange.
When I ask them to explain what draws Hispanics to McCain, I hear the same things: his independence, his convictions, his courage and his moderate stance on issues. Then, of course, there is his military service and his heroic suffering as a prisoner of war.
“If you look at Latino families, we’ve all got someone who has been in the military,” said Ruben Alvarez, a McCain supporter and principal at the Molera Alvarez Group, a public affairs firm in Phoenix. “The fact that McCain is so patriotic is a draw for many Latinos.”
Another Hispanic Republican called McCain the original compassionate conservative, someone who wore that label before there ever was a label.
And, she said, as someone who has faced his share of challenges in life, McCain’s compassion bleeds over to anyone picked on or preyed upon.
At the moment, Hispanics are under fire thanks to an immigration debate that doesn’t bother to distinguish between recent immigrants and U.S. citizens – as long as they have Spanish surnames.
But there’s another factor that helps explain McCain’s appeal to Hispanics: He’s spent 20 years quietly recruiting them into his campaigns and building up personal relationships in that Arizona community.
Bettina Nava met McCain more than 15 years ago and served as state director for his Senate office in Arizona for three years. Now based at a consulting firm in Phoenix, Nava recently was named one of 11 campaign managers for McCain. She’s in charge of Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
“What initially drew me to McCain was that I have never met anyone who loved his country more,” Nava told me. “He honors his commitments. . . . (W)ith this guy, we get a straight shooter.”
McCain marked Cinco de Mayo by launching his Hispanic outreach effort, which includes a Spanish-language Web site. Those gimmicks don’t hurt.
But what is really going to help McCain win Hispanic support in November is the same thing that has earned him so much of it up to now.
It’s called character, and Hispanics – like many other Americans – may not always be able to define it. But they know it when they see it.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
KEY ELEMENTS OF McCAIN’s BORDER, IMMIGRATION POLICY
I have always believed that our border must be secure and that the federal government has utterly failed in its responsibility to ensure that it is secure.
As president, I will secure the border.
But a secure border will contribute to addressing our immigration problem most effectively if we also:
• Recognize the importance of building strong allies in Mexico and Latin America who reject the siren call of authoritarians like Hugo Chavez, support freedom and democracy, and seek strong domestic economies with abundant economic opportunities for their citizens.
• Recognize the importance of a flexible labor market to keep employers in business and our economy on top. It should provide skilled Americans and immigrants with opportunity.
• Recognize the importance of assimilation of our immigrant population, which includes learning English, American history and civics, and respecting the values of a democratic society.
PERCENTAGE OF HISPANICS WHO IDENTIFY WITH OR ARE LEANING TO A PARTY
Source: Pew Hispanic Center