WASHINGTON (MCT) Republican candidate John McCain promised Saturday that he would make immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents "my top priority" if elected president.
McCain made the promise to a group of Latino elected officials as both he and Barack Obama court Hispanic voters who are a key constituency in several Western swing states and in the perennial electoral battleground of Florida.
In a separate appearance before the same group later in the day Obama charged that McCain had backed away from his longtime support of comprehensive immigration reform during Republican primaries under pressure from conservatives in his party.
Both McCain and Obama see opportunities for their campaigns among Latino voters.
Obama also sought to burnish his foreign policy credentials Saturday, announcing a trip later this summer to Europe and the Middle East that will include stops in Britain, France, Germany, Israel and Jordan. The Illinois senator already had said he would go to Afghanistan and Iraq, which he visited only once before in January 2006.
McCain, who supports continuing the war in Iraq while Obama favors a troop drawdown, has been highly critical of Obama for the small amount of time he has spent on the ground in Iraq. McCain has visited Iraq several times, most recently during a trip earlier this year that also included stops in most of the countries Obama plans to visit.
But despite a few war protesters who interrupted McCain, the candidates' appearances Saturday at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials focused on domestic issues, particularly immigration.
Asked if he would make comprehensive immigration reform and not just strengthening border enforcement a high priority, McCain responded, "It will be my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow," drawing sustained applause.
"There are 12 million people here and they are here illegally but they are God's children, they are God's children," McCain said, pounding the podium for emphasis as he repeated the words.
Obama was a bit less emphatic when asked the same question, though he also said he would support immigration reform that included a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He said it would be "one of my priorities."
Yet Obama accused McCain, a co-author of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that was defeated in Congress by heavy Republican opposition, of shifting his stance to focus instead on border enforcement in order to win support from his party's conservative base.
"When he was running for his party's nomination, he walked away from that commitment. He said he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote," Obama said. "If we are going to solve the challenges we face, we can't vacillate, we can't shift depending on our politics."
An Obama spokesman said the Illinois senator was referring to a statement McCain made during the Jan. 30 Republican debate at the Reagan presidential library in which McCain was asked whether he would vote for comprehensive immigration legislation he had sponsored.
"No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today," McCain responded at the debate. "The people want the border secured first."
The accusation rapidly stirred an e-mail skirmish between the two campaigns.
McCain's camp sent out a news release charging that Obama had undermined attempts to pass immigration reform legislation in 2006 by supporting amendments opposed by business interests that the McCain campaign called "poison pills."
The Obama camp responded with a statement McCain made on the Senate floor just before the final vote on the legislation in which the Arizona senator commended Obama for "working to ensure this bill moved successfully intact through the legislative process."