Arizona Sen. John McCain has long been the Republican presidential contender with the best prospect of winning Latino voters, because he has long argued for a path to citizenship in the overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
But with conservatives angry over what they call "amnesty" for illegal immigration, McCain lately has been walking a tough tightrope — emphasizing border security and enforcement, while also courting Latino supporters.
McCain's new priorities require a delicate balancing act in every immigration speech he makes. This was on display this week when he addressed the National Council of La Raza in San Diego and emphasized his independence from his own party.
"I never ask for any special privileges from anyone just for having done the right thing," he said. "But I do ask for your trust that when I say I remain committed to fair, practical and comprehensive immigration reform, I mean it."
Cecilia Munoz, the vice president of La Raza, appreciated the plea for trust. Still, she said McCain's emphasis on border security turned her off.
"He talked about comprehensive immigration reform, but always following [that] we have to secure the borders first. And that really suggests that there is a two-part agenda, and I think there is real concern about that in the community," she said.
The La Raza speech was the senator's third appearance before such groups in as many weeks. Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a longtime hawk on illegal immigration, says he gets turned off when he hears McCain say the words "comprehensive immigration reform."
"That's code for amnesty, and everybody knows it," Tancredo said. "He knows it, and the audience knew it."
When it comes to immigration, McCain has made enemies on both sides, but that doesn't mean he's stopped trying to attract voters in the middle, including Latino voters.
At the McCain for President campaign office in suburban Denver, Mark Massey and a handful of volunteers are calling registered voters in one of the state's largely Hispanic counties. Massey reads from a script that mentions national security, gas prices and the economy. It doesn't mention immigration.
Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli says immigration isn't the leading issue for many Hispanics, but it is a way to get them to the polls. He says many Hispanics may not trust McCain to deliver on his pledge to give illegal immigrants in this country a pathway to citizenship, but they do know he's been a maverick on the issue.
"I do think he starts far more advantaged than any other Republican they could have nominated to make a credible case to give some votes," he said.
That's the message that Gil Cisneros, vice chairman of McCain's campaign in Colorado, wants to communicate to Hispanic voters. "He's walked his talk," he said. "He's been very supportive. He knows the Hispanic community well, being a senator from Arizona for many, many years. He just didn't come out the woodwork saying, 'I'm here to save the Hispanic community.'"
Independent pollster Ciruli says that in key battleground states such as Colorado, McCain doesn't need to get most or even half of the Hispanic vote. He just needs to be competitive to reduce his margin of loss. "He is probably the only Republican that was in the nomination race that can do that," Ciruli said.
Ciruli adds that since Obama has almost the same stand as McCain on immigration, conservative Republicans for whom illegal immigration is a key factor don't have a viable option.
On that point, Tancredo agrees. "I'm going to vote for my party's pick — my party's nominee. That's different than endorsing, I suppose," he said.
McCain is likely to find activists on Tancredo's end of the tightrope pulling especially hard when the Republican Party platform gets drafted next month — just before the party meets for its convention in St. Paul.