Barack Obama

SAN DIEGO — Barack Obama on Sunday proposed up to a 50-percent tax credit for small businesses providing health insurance to their employees, a program he hopes has special appeal to Hispanics and other minority groups struggling for a toehold in the U.S. economy.

The idea had been championed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, whom Obama vanquished in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"We know that small businesses are the engines of economic prosperity in our communities, especially in Latino communities," Obama said in an address to several thousand Hispanics attending the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza.

"My plan won't impose any new burdens on small businesses. Instead, we'll help them not just create new jobs but good jobs — jobs with health care, jobs that stay right here in America, the kinds of jobs we need in our communities," the Illinois senator said.

While the precise cost and details of the program were not immediately available, a campaign statement said the "credit would be fully available to small firms, and would be phased out for medium-size firms. It would also be phased out for small firms with high-income employees."

The speech is the latest in a series of efforts by Obama to reach out to Latino voters, a constituency over which he and his Republican rival, John McCain, are battling.

"Make no mistake about it: The Latino community holds this election in your hands," Obama said to cheers. "I am here today to make you this promise: I will be a president who stands with you and fights for you and walks with you every single step of the way."

Last week, both candidates addressed some 700 Hispanics attending the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference. They agreed to revamp immigration, an issue McCain has made a hallmark but Obama has accused McCain of abandoning after major immigration legislation fell apart last year.

Both McCain and Obama support an eventual path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally, although McCain, a senator from the border state of Arizona, has shifted his emphasis to securing the U.S. border before turning his focus back to overhauling immigration laws.

For his part, McCain has a new television ad, titled "God's Children," in which he lauds the military service of Hispanics.

Latinos are expected to impact the voting in such battleground states as Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico and in others with large numbers of Spanish-speaking voters.

A recent AP-Yahoo News poll showed Obama leading McCain among Hispanics, 47 percent to 22 percent, with 26 percent undecided. Yet President Bush captured about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, the most ever for a GOP presidential candidate. Democrat John Kerry won 53 percent, down from the 62 percent former Vice President Al Gore received in 2000.

"Right now, I think we're doing well in the polls, but I tend not to trust polls," Obama told reporters on Saturday. "I think we've got to work hard, and any opportunity that I have to tell that story about the work I did as a community organizer, as a state legislator, as well as a U.S. senator, on behalf of issues and causes that are important to the Latino community, I want to seize that opportunity. I'm not as well known in that community as I'd like to be, but my assessment is that we're doing pretty well there right now."

While in California, Obama also attended fundraisers in San Diego and Newport Beach. In San Diego, he was introduced by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a top Hispanic official. In Newport Beach, he told the weekend evening crowd, "I'm still looking for my mimosa." When a woman offered him a sip of hers, Obama imbibed, told her it tasted "nice" but declared to laughter, "I'm more of a Bloody Mary guy."

In addition, Obama made an address via satellite to the American Federation of Teachers convention in Chicago in which he reiterated his education views. The union has endorsed him.