Barack Obama is speaking a lot of Spanish nowadays. In addition last weekend to releasing the first advertisement in which a presidential candidate speaks directly in the language, Mr Obama is already in a head-to-head fight with John McCain for what many election analysts believe will be the key ethnic swing vote in November.
By Andrew Ward in Reno, Nevada, and Edward Luce in Washington
On Wednesday Mr McCain and Mr Obama completed their third consecutive day campaigning in the south-west, which includes New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Arizona, targeted by both men as important swing states.
Previously Republican-leaning, at least three of the five states could go Democratic in November because of a strong rise in Hispanic immigration. The fourth, Arizona, is Mr McCain’s home state and is therefore seen as unlikely to shift. And Utah remains overwhelmingly Republican.
In 2004 George W. Bush would have lost the presidency had he not held on to Colorado by five points, Nevada by two points and New Mexico by just one. “We want to send a message now that we are going to go after them [the south-western states],” Mr Obama told reporters in New Mexico.
Hillary Clinton is expected to sweep the almost entirely Hispanic territory of Puerto Rico on Sunday in the third from last Democratic nominating contest. But analysts believe the stars would be aligned for any Democratic nominee to take the lion’s share of the Hispanic vote in November.
John McCain is considered the most liberal Republican on the issue of illegal immigration, which mostly involves people coming from Mexico to the south-western states, but almost 80 per cent of Hispanics who have voted in presidential contests this year have endorsed Democratic candidates.
Many believe Mr McCain may have blotted his copybook among Hispanics by disowning the immigration reform bill he co-sponsored last year with Senator Edward Kennedy. Earlier this year Mr McCain said he would now vote against his own bill and instead give priority to building a fence along the Mexican border before dealing with the status of the estimated 12m illegal immigrants.
“There is a real question over whether McCain’s reputation can survive his ‘border-fence-come-lately’ political switch,” says Tom Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “He also has to keep the Republican base happy, which in the south-west is very hardline on immigration.”
Even in Arizona, where Mr McCain had previously picked up the majority of Hispanic votes in Senate campaigns, he is falling behind. On February 5, when Arizona held simultaneous Democratic and Republican primaries, he picked up only 22 per cent of the Latino vote against 28 per cent for Mr Obama and 37 per cent for Mrs Clinton.
Although Mr McCain won the primary, he was the only big presidential candidate in either party to do so with less than half the vote. In neighbouring Nevada, Mr McCain is thought to be particularly vulnerable since he opposes gambling on sports, which is a big jobs provider in Las Vegas, and has a history of support for the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump.
“Senator McCain is not nearly as strong in the south-west as you would expect him to be,” said Andres Ramirez, who heads the Hispanic centre at the New Democratic Network, a liberal think-tank. “And Barack Obama is not as weak among Hispanics as some people believe. He has spent more on Spanish- language ads than any candidate in history.”
For the other south-western states, whoever becomes the Democratic nominee will be able to count on the support of Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic and the governor of New Mexico. And by holding their August presidential convention in Denver, the Democrats are making a strong pitch for Colorado.
However, Democrats worry that Mr Obama will still find it hard to pick up Mrs Clinton’s strong support among Hispanic voters. Of the 50 nominating contests so far, Mr Obama has won a larger share of the Hispanic vote than Mrs Clinton only in three states – Connecticut, Illinois and Virginia.
Mr McCain is adapting policy positions to take the south-west into account. He has retraced some of the steps he took on immigration in the early primaries. On Wednesday he even came up with a new plan for nuclear waste that may bypass Nevada. “It is even possible that such an international centre could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada,” he said.
●President George W. Bush and John McCain appeared together for the first time in nearly three months on Tuesday night at a fundraising event in Phoenix, Arizona, that was closed to the media.
They were photographed only after the event – too late for most evening television newscasts – on the airport tarmac just before the president departed. Barack Obama, Mr McCain’s Democratic opponent, said Mr McCain “doesn’t want to be seen, hat-in-hand, with the president whose failed policies he promises to continue for another four years”.