One of Congress' most influential Hispanic members says that John McCain "walked away" from the Latino community and is not a "person of principle" on immigration reform -- a perception that could haunt the Arizona Republican in the general election.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sen. Robert Menendez offered a scathing rebuke of McCain, painting him as a candidate who sold his political soul to secure his party's presidential nomination.
"In my mind, he has dramatically shifted. He has really taken a Republican tact," said the New Jersey Democrat. "It seems to me, and it is out there in the community, that he walked away at a critical time. And when you take that view, which shows that he is not the person of principle that he would like to show himself being, and you wear the Republican mantle that is so negative and anti-immigrant... I think it is very hard for John McCain to make hay with Latinos at the end of the day."
During the course of the Republican primary, McCain veered away from his support of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, citing, openly, the political pressures being put on him by the conservative base.
"I understand why you would call it a, quote, shift," McCain told reporters. "I say it is a lesson learned about what the American people's priorities are. And their priority is to secure the borders."
Ultimately, the move helped McCain net his party's nomination. But not without a cost. As Menendez argues, many now believe that the GOP nominee caved for political gain; something McCain's camp adamantly denies.
"Everyone knows that John McCain risked his political life to lead on the bipartisan immigration reform effort last year," his spokesperson Brian Rogers told The Huffington Post. "He bucked his party in the middle of a presidential campaign, and was attacked relentlessly for it. These cheap partisan attacks are unfortunate and absurd."
How McCain transitions on immigration during the general election could, in the end, be a major determinant of his candidacy's success. Will he try to champion his initial position, which included pathways towards citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country? Or will any move away from conservative orthodoxy be seen, as Menendez predicts, as a flip-flop-flip of historic proportions?
"The question that I would ask is: 'How are we supposed to believe you?' said Menendez. "Considering what they did to John Kerry on the question of the war, this would be much easier to do with John McCain. It would be: 'I was with you, before I was against you, before I was with you.'"
Those questions will come into sharp focus in July, when McCain is scheduled to appear before the National Council of La Raza, a pro-immigration group that took great umbrage with his adopted hard-line mentality.
"I expect him to try and dissemble and speak in ways that would lead you to the impression that we have to have comprehensive immigration reform," said Menendez. "But the question that has to be posed to him, first and foremost, is... how are we supposed to believe you in the first place, when you previously said something different? I think he's made his bed. He's tried to have it both ways and he came to the conclusion that to win the Republican primary he had to fall in bed with all the hardliners and anti-immigrants. And I think he will not successfully equivocate on this."
Menedez's critique of McCain's immigration policy is the hardest yet during the general election campaign. Various pro-immigration groups and elected officials had previously taken the Arizona Republican to task for his shifted position. But colleagues in the Senate have, by and large, kept their powder dry.
That said, Menendez wasn't 100 percent convinced that the Latino vote would break overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. While recent polling has the Illinois Democrat doing better among Hispanics than Sen. John Kerry in 2004, the numbers may not be enough to change the dynamics of the election.
"The latest poll I saw was Latinos supporting Obama over McCain by a margin of 60-40," said Menendez. "To be honest with you, we can't afford that. I think the Republicans would be happy if they go 40 percent of the Latino vote particularly in key states. If they could achieve that they will be on the road to the White House. I do think Obama will ultimately do well with Latino voters, but there is work to be done."
And what would that work be? Menendez suggested that the presumptive Democratic nominee talk to the Latinos about issues like health care and the economy, both of which disproportionately affect the Hispanic-American community. But there was a short-term solution as well.
Picking Hillary Clinton as vice president "would solidify the Latino situation immediately," said Menendez, a national co-chair of the Clinton campaign, "because she overwhelmingly had that support across the country."
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