Southwest Passage

If you go to John McCain's campaign Web site and roll your mouse over the "Issues" tab, you may need to look twice, as I did, to locate from the drop-down list of a dozen topical links the one that reveals the senator's position on immigration. That's because the tag that brings you to the page headlined "Border Security & Immigration Reform" uses the first two words, rather than the latter two, for its label -- a curious if apposite reflection of the election-year shift of emphasis in the Republican nominee's posture on his party's most divisive issue.

McCain represents Arizona, the fastest-growing state in the nation's fastest-growing and increasingly pivotal electoral region, the Southwest. Couple his home region advantage with his prominent leadership role on the immigration issue and the man whom anti-amnesty conservatives openly deride as "Juan McCain" is, in theory at least, the Republicans' best chance to keep the Hispanic-heavy Southwest in the GOP's column this November. "It completely screws [the Democrats' Southwest ambitions] up," McCain adviser Charles Black recently told The Washington Post. "We nominated the one person who will not suffer that backlash."

Can McCain thwart the Democrats from capturing the Southwest in 2008? Or will history remember him as the Republican who, home state aside, was responsible for finally letting the Southwest slip from red to blue?

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In 2004 George W. Bush carried all four Southwestern states -- Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico -- but all except Arizona were among the 11 states nationally decided by margins of five points or less. Al Gore also won New Mexico in 2000 by the razor-thin margin of just 366 votes. Bush did win Arizona twice by comfortable margins, but because it is McCain's home state it won't be in play this cycle anyway. So you can understand why national Democrats are salivating at the thought of snapping up the 19 combined electoral votes in the other three states -- a feat that would offset the result in so-goes-the-nation Ohio, with its 20 electors.

In 2004 Hispanics accounted for 8 percent, 10 percent, and 32 percent of all voters in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, respectively, and this cycle these shares should be higher. The silver lining for Republicans -- and the reason Bush won them narrowly -- is that the support for John Kerry was somewhat inversely related to the Hispanic population share, with Kerry doing worst in New Mexico (56 percent), best in Colorado (68 percent), and his performance in Nevada (60 percent) in between. The same year, in his latest re-election bid, McCain won three-quarters of the Hispanic vote, neither outperforming nor underperforming his 77 percent statewide share of all votes.

So the Democrats still must prove they can wrest the region away from McCain and the Republicans. Put another way, in the Southwest McCain's candidacy is an interesting, albeit exceptional test case of whether the Arizona senator, beyond his home state, enjoys any special local advantage beyond the baseline Republican support in the region.

McCain's maverick image -- which some might dispute as illegitimate, but has nonetheless been officially bestowed upon him by the national punditry -- is his most significant asset. "His somewhat more reasonable posture will stand him in good stead" with Southwestern voters, including Latinos, says Colorado State University political scientist John Straayer of McCain. "Somebody like [Colorado Rep. Tom] Tancredo would have mobilized the Latino community against the Republicans, but I don't think that will happen with McCain. He's less objectionable. He'll have to be tough on border security and tough on employers checking for legal residency, while at the same time moderating his tone and rhetoric. But I think he's probably in as good a position as any Republican could be."

Denver-based Democratic consultant Mike Stratton agrees with Straayer on McCain's generic allure, but says the Iraq War severely limits McCain's appeal to Southwestern voters. "I think he has higher name ID in the Western states and is reasonably well known. He would appeal to moderates and there are a lot of them in the Southwestern states," Stratton told me. "But people in the Southwest are opposed to the war, and McCain is a poster child for the war."

Despite his apostate's identity within conservative Republican circles on immigration, the key regional issue, McCain's election-season backpedaling may cost him dearly, one way or another. As the chief co-sponsor of the most sweeping immigration reform proposal since the mid-1980s, McCain has drawn unrestrained ire from the conservatives he'll need to keep in his coalition if he wants to win in November. At the same time, tugging him from the other end of the center-right are immigration moderates and Hispanics who cheered Bush's efforts to find a common-ground solution that would dovetail stronger border security and a more humanitarian approach to the illegal immigrants already here. McCain wants both parts of this potential coalition, but wishing it so won't make it so. Stratton believes that McCain, despite his co-sponsorship with Ted Kennedy of the Bush-endorsed immigration reform package will ultimately fall far short of the level of support Bush enjoyed among Hispanics, 40 percent of whom voted to re-elect the president in 2004. "McCain's position on immigration is no different from the Democrats on immigration. He will get killed by Hispanics, 75 percent to 25 percent," predicts Stratton.

Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, which focuses specifically on Latino voters, also thinks McCain has blown his chances with Latinos. "It is going to be hard for McCain to hit Bush's numbers with Hispanics," says Rosenberg, whose organization recently released a report showing Latinos in fact breaking at the very three-to-one levels Stratton projects. "It is not a stretch to say that he was singularly responsible for the failure of immigration reform in 2007, walking from his own bill at a critical moment in the debate. To Hispanics, what he has shown is cowardice not courage, betrayal not fidelity -- and it is going to cost him."

"McCain compromised his position by running ads during the primary and saying in debates that he had 'listened' to GOP voters and 'learned' his lesson," notes campaign advertising expert Sean Aday, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "So he hardened both his stance and his rhetoric on immigration, which means Democrats will be able to run ads targeted at Hispanics making the case that, on this issue, 'the Straight Talk Express took a detour to Panderville.'"

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Southwestern politics is hardly limited to moderates and the war, or Hispanics and the immigration question. Straayer notes that the region is home to key military installations and, particularly in Colorado, significant religious conservative populations. But McCain could have significant trouble with the latter group, as evidenced by the very public dressing-down he suffered from Dr. James Dobson, the Colorado Springs-based leader of Focus on the Family and one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the country. It's less clear how environmental politics – another important regional issue about which McCain speaks regularly, including often passionate appeals to combat global warming -- will affect his competitiveness in the region.

Then there are down-ballot effects, particularly in two open-seat Senate races. "You're probably going to elect new Democratic senators in Colorado and New Mexico," says Stratton, referring to the seats vacated by the retirements of Republicans Wayne Allard and Pete Domenici, and for which cousins Mark and Tom Udall are respectively vying. "Senate races are always nationalized, and you can bet dollars to doughnuts that Mark Udall and Tom Udall will run hard and that will help Democrats immensely." Democratic Govs. Bill Ritter and Bill Richardson are also very popular in these two states. "Kerry almost won Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, and he was our low tide," argues Stratton. "So there's every reason to think we can take these three states, or at least two of them."

"There isn't evidence today that McCain is having a regional impact -- he is having an Arizona-specific impact so far," concludes Rosenberg, citing the recently-published SurveyUSA state-by-state results showing Barack Obama beating McCain in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, with Hillary Clinton winning only the latter. "If McCain succeeds in taking the four key Southwestern states out of play this year it will make the Democratic map much harder. But to date there is no evidence that he will be able to do it."

Despite Stratton's and Rosenberg's optimism, there are still a few wildcards in the southwestern presidential equation, including but not limited to candidate effects of the Democratic nominee, which hinge in part on whether (and despite the SurveyUSA results) Hillary Clinton's stronger draw among Hispanics or Barack Obama's appeal to independents offers the greater electoral advantage in the region. And, at least in theory, the Southwest should be the most difficult to project because Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado are consistently the three fastest growing states in the nation and, therefore, the hardest to figure out in terms of the influx of new voters who have arrived recently either as the result of immigration from other countries or as Americans who in-migrated from other parts of this country. But in general, it is fair to conclude that in the Southwest the Republicans are rowing against the electoral tide and yet, with McCain, the GOP chose the one candidate this cycle who at least has his boat pointed in the proper direction.

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