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McCain, Obama Court Latino Voters

U.S. presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama worked Saturday to gain the support of Latino voters, who may play a key role in the outcome of the November election. VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington.

Democratic Senator Barack Obama greeted some 700 Hispanic leaders with the Spanish-language rallying cry, "Si se puede," or "Yes we can." Obama and Republican Senator John McCain both spoke Saturday at a conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, in Washington.

Latinos are America's fastest-growing ethnic minority, and the nation's fastest-growing group of voters. The association to which the candidates spoke predicts a record turnout of more than nine million Hispanic voters in November.

U.S. immigration policy is one issue on many of those voters' minds, and both senators addressed the issue. Obama called it a top priority.

"We need immigration reform that will secure our borders and punish employers who exploit immigrant labor. But we also need reform that finally brings the 12 million people who are here illegally out of the shadows, requiring them to take steps to become legal citizens, putting them on a pathway to citizenship. That has to be one of our priorities as well," he said.

McCain, whose home state, Arizona, contains much of the U.S. border with Mexico, also called immigration reform his top priority. He talked about his two failed attempts in the Senate to reform immigration laws, and assured the group that he would address the issue "in a humane and compassionate fashion."

"We can and will secure our borders first, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States," he said.

Both candidates were received warmly, but McCain was interrupted four times by hecklers.

Both McCain and Obama spoke about their proposals to reduce U.S. independence on oil from overseas. McCain said his plan would be the largest of its kind in U.S. history.

"We have got to proceed with confidence and trust of the American people towards achieving independence of foreign oil, a short gas tax holiday for Americans who are paying more and more at the gas pump, exploration of offshore oil if the states agree - oil and natural gas deposits - adoption of alternate fuels, hydrogen hybrids, electric cars," he said.

Obama also talked about fostering energy independence.

"Gas prices are killing folks, but the only way we are going to bring gas prices down long-term is to invest in renewable energies - solar, wind, biodiesel - new technology for automobiles," he said.

New Mexico state Governor Bill Richardson, a former U.S. energy secretary and a Latino himself, used Saturday's Democratic Party radio address to promote Obama's energy proposals and criticize McCain's.

"Senator McCain's gimmicks - a gas tax holiday that will save consumers, at most, 30 cents a day for three months, and offering a prize for inventing a car battery - are not answers. As a former secretary of energy, I know they will not work," he said.

Richardson has advised Obama to campaign heavily in four states, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Florida, where the Latino vote could affect the outcome of the election.

A Gallup public opinion poll in May indicated that 62 percent of Hispanics supported Obama, to 29 percent for McCain. But in the Democratic primaries, Latinos heavily favored Senator Hillary Clinton over Obama. And McCain won 70 percent of Arizona's Latino vote in his last Senate campaign.

Obama plans to speak to two other major Hispanic groups in July.