CHICAGO Republican presidential candidate John McCain assured Hispanic leaders he would push through Congress legislation to overhaul federal immigration laws if elected, several people who attended a private meeting with the candidate said Thursday.
Democrats questioned why the Arizona senator held the meeting late Wednesday night in Chicago. But supporters who were in the room denied that McCain held the closed-door session out of fear of offending conservatives, many of whom want him to take a harder line on immigration.
Both McCain and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama support giving legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, but neither has made the issue a centerpiece of the campaign. At one time, McCain's campaign suffered because of his stance on the issue.
"This was not a secret meeting," said Rafael Rivadeneira, a vice chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Illinois, who was among more than 150 Chicago-area Hispanic leaders who attended. "There was nothing he said that they wouldn't want people to hear."
Other attendees said they were not so sure.
"He's one John McCain in front of white Republicans. And he's a different John McCain in front of Hispanics," complained Rosanna Pulido, a Hispanic and conservative Republican who attended the meeting.
Pulido, who heads the Illinois Minuteman Project, which advocates for restrictive immigration laws, said she thought McCain was "pandering to the crowd" by emphasizing immigration reform in his speech.
"He's having his private meetings to rally Hispanics and to tell them what they want to hear," she said. "I'm outraged that he would reach out to me as a Hispanic but not as a conservative."
After the event, McCain met privately with Martin Sandoval, an Illinois state senator and Democratic convention delegate for former candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sandoval said he left open the possibility of backing McCain, citing his immigration stance and pledge to keep business taxes low.
Earlier Thursday, McCain toured flood-damaged southeastern Iowa, walking past half-submerged buildings, washed-out roads and thousands of sandbags filled hurriedly in a vain attempt to hold back the waters.
"I know I speak for all of America. We'll do everything necessary to try to rebuild their lives," the Republican presidential candidate said of residents of a town of 1,900 at the confluence of the Cedar and Iowa Rivers.
The town experienced record flooding in recent days, and although the waters have begun to recede, National Guard trucks blocked access to washed-out roads and the municipal water system had not yet been returned to operation.
McCain peppered Mayor Dan Wilson with questions as they walked through town looking at the damage. Wilson said tens of thousands of sandbags had been filled to create makeshift levees that prevented flooding from being worse.
"So you lost the battle but you won the war," said the Arizona senator, looking out at a department store, day-care center and motel partly under water.
In another section of town, a shed lay on its top in muddy floodwaters in a store parking lot. Although the water is receding, what is left will have to be pumped out because its return to the river is blocked by permanent levees built after floods struck the area in 1993.
McCain flew to Iowa the same day as President Bush.