For the past few months, it seemed as if Latino voters had lost their leverage. When the polls and the pundits gave Sen. John McCain of Arizona up for dead, when they said his presidential campaign was on life-support, Latinos lost their ability to threaten Democrats with a viable GOP alternative.
They could not tell Democrats that they had the option of voting for Republicans such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee or Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado because the Democrats know that Latinos are not masochistic. It would have been a joke.
After the way those candidates have pandered to conservative immigration extremists and promoted ethnic intolerance, no one expects them to get significant Latino support. And that includes former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who goes from compassionate to intolerant every other day, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has turned his back on the illegal immigrants he once defended. Most Latinos would pick any Democrat over them.
Only McCain, with his admirable posture in support of tolerance for diversity and compassion for illegal immigrants, could win a significant portion of the Hispanic vote, especially in some large states that could swing the presidential election.
As long as McCain was down in the polls, the Democrats could afford to take the Latino vote for granted. They had to do absolutely nothing to earn it because it was coming to them by default. And thus, during the past few months as Latinos lost their McCain leverage, the issues that concern them became less visible, "amnesty" became a dirty word and even Democrats tried to pander to the extreme right. Before our very eyes in two separate debates, Sen. Hillary Clinton flipped from supporting to rejecting driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
And she thought she could do that because she thought McCain was out of the picture. What were Latinos going to do, vote for an immigrant basher? Considering the leading GOP alternatives, she thought she could betray Latinos during the primaries and still get their support in the general election.
But that was before McCain won the New Hampshire GOP primary. Things are quite different now. "Mac is back," McCain supporters are chanting. But so is Latino leverage.
If McCain stays competitive, watch for the Democrats to become more responsive to Latinos and their interests. Perhaps they'll go beyond their usual lip service, especially now that the primaries will start moving through the states where Latinos live.
Democrats know that McCain is the only Republican who can draw enough Latino votes to neutralize what otherwise would be a formidable voting bloc for any Democrat.
But many conservative Republicans apparently refuse to see this. At the risk of losing GOP control of the White House, they are willing to support candidates who bash illegal immigrants, even if those candidates are likely to lose in November.
Mind you, even McCain has hardened his position on illegal immigration. He says he now recognizes that the American public wants the borders secured before we grant some kind of legalization plan to the noncriminal illegal immigrants who are already here.
Yet because of his reputation as a man of integrity, even when he vows to shut down the borders first, many Latinos trust he is the one who can fix our broken immigration system with the only logical solution: comprehensive reform that stops future illegal immigration, but takes 12 million people out of the shadows.
Because McCain always has stood by his principles and refused to scapegoat immigrants, even in debates where most of his competitors were spreading xenophobia, many Latino voters trust him even more than the "promise-anything-and-deliver-nothing" Democrats.
In fact, Latino voters may make McCain president if he becomes the Republican nominee. And if another Republican gets the nod, so many Latinos will vote Democratic that records will be broken.
Amazingly, after spending months scapegoating Latino illegal immigrants, some GOP presidential hopefuls believe they still can appeal to legal immigrants in the Hispanic community because, as Huckabee put it in a recent debate, "I think there is a great misperception that Hispanic people in this country somehow are soft and weak on immigration; they are not. Those who have come here legally, who have stood in line, who have patiently waited to get in this country are some of the ones who insist that we enforce the law."
Nothing could be farther from the truth! It's not a question of being soft or weak, it's about having compassion for our friends and neighbors. In the Hispanic community, you don't hear people protesting about anyone cutting in front of the immigration line. That is a myth created by people who are against us and then have the gall to try to speak for us.
Sure, you'll find some Latino GOP party loyalists who always will put the interests of their party before those of their own community. And some of them still may be supporting candidates who clearly would be harmful to Latino interests. But to the overwhelming majority of Latinos, especially those who live in the major urban centers of this nation, illegal immigrants are not foreigners who represent some kind of threat; they are our friends and neighbors. Sometimes they are even our relatives.
Those who don't think we will vote to help them are sadly mistaken.
Ironically, from the barrios, Latino Americans who live next door to illegal immigrants may have enough votes to elect the next president. And in the end, immigration may swing this election, but in the opposite way than the conservative candidates expected.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.