05/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Courts The Indian Country Vote

Sen. John McCain has released his long-awaited "Native American Policy" in hopes of gathering more support from the often-ignored but influential group.

The American Indian vote, which has been historically Democratic, could shift to the Republicans this election cycle because of the positive interaction and influence McCain has had with Native people. In states such as Arizona and New Mexico, where the Native American populations reach over 250,000 and 134,000 respectively, their vote could make a significant difference in the election. Reservations and tribal communities comprise over a quarter of Arizona's land.

McCain, whose home state of Arizona includes over 20 Indian reservations, has a history of supporting tribal legislation. He served as former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and is a current member of the committee.

Along with the other two presidential candidates, McCain is a cosponsor of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which passed the Senate in late February.

"As president, John McCain will continue to build on his record of achieving results for Indian Country," the policy states. "And will continue to do so through close consultation with the tribes."

McCain also promises to reform the trust system, fix education through the BIA schools construction initiative and continue to support tribes' rights to engage in gaming on Indian lands.

The Arizona senator's advantage with Native Americans, whose population reached 4.3 million in 2000, is the past and personal interactions he's had with them. Each year, the Republican presidential candidate walks the 3-mile parade route of the annual Navajo Nation Fair in Arizona.

McCain has also received the support of Native American Veterans, who said that if McCain were president he would act as "the eight hundred-pound gorilla against anti-Native American groups."

This year could bring the highest turnout of Native American voters in history. In the New Mexico Democratic caucus, there was a significantly large turn out, according to Laura Harris, director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, in an interview with the High Country News.

There are an estimated 150 Native American delegates. Kalyn Free, a Native American superdelegate, announced her support for Sen. Barack Obama earlier in May. "In 2008, we must elect a president who will restore our faith in the possibilities of each and every American, including the First Americans," said Free of her endorsement in a press release.

While Obama has made some efforts to reach the Native American vote, it is too early to tell if voters feel that his dedication to their needs is as strong as McCain's.