The focus of the U.S. presidential race turned to America's large and growing Hispanic population Tuesday, with both major party candidates addressing a national gathering of Hispanic leaders.  VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington.

Hispanics are America's largest minority group, accounting for about 15 percent of the U.S. population.  Although many Hispanics do not vote, either because they lack citizenship or are not of legal voting age, they represent a critical voting bloc in many states that could decide the November election.

The presumed Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens in Washington Tuesday.  He said all Americans, including Hispanics, will benefit from his economic plan to keep taxes low.

"There are two million Latino-owned businesses in America. The first consideration we should have when debating tax policy is how we can help those companies grow and increase the prosperity of the millions of American families whose economic security depends on their success. It is a terrible mistake to raise taxes during an economic downturn," he said.

Later in the day, McCain's Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, told the group this year's election is about giving all Americans a fair chance at the American dream.

"We have to make sure that we have a government that knows that a problem facing any American is a problem facing all Americans," he said.

Obama has said he wants to reduce taxes for middle-income earners.  But he has pledged to repeal many of the tax cuts enacted by President Bush.  Obama says those cuts favor the wealthy.

Historically, as a group, Hispanics have tended to vote Democratic, sometimes by as much as a two-to-one ratio.  But President Bush made significant inroads among Hispanics in his successful presidential bids.  He won more than 40-percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.

Today polls show a significant drop in Hispanic backing for the Republican Party.  Many analysts blame this on the hard-line stance of many prominent Republicans on fighting illegal immigration.

But Senator McCain is a longtime backer of comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a legal path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States. Obama has taken a similar position.

In his speech, McCain noted that Congress has yet to pass such reform, but said the cause is not lost.  He said immigrants have greatly contributed to America's prosperity and national character, and will continue to do so. 

"I know this country, which I love more than almost anything, would be the poorer were we deprived of patriotism, industry, and decency of those millions of Americans whose families came here from other countries in our hemisphere. I will honor their contributions to America for as long as I live," he said.

Obama accused McCain of backing away from comprehensive immigration reform during the primary election season. 

"But when he started running for his party's nomination, he abandoned his courageous stands, and said that he would not even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote.  Well, for eight long years we have had a president who has made all kinds of promises to Latinos on the campaign trail, but failed to live up to them in the White House, and we cannot afford that anymore," he said.

In the Democratic presidential primary contests, Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama's rival, Senator Hillary Clinton.  But a recent poll shows Hispanics favor Obama over McCain 59 to 29 percent.