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McCain courts Latino leaders

From NBC/NJ's Matthew E. Berger

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- McCain appealed to Hispanic voters Saturday with a message against raising taxes and highlighting his patriotism alongside Latinos during the Vietnam War.

McCain told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials it is a "terrible mistake to raise taxes during an economic downturn" and said increasing business and individual tax rates could hurt Latino businesses.

VIDEO: During remarks at a conference of Latino leaders, presidential candidate John McCain's speech is disrupted by two demonstrators. MSNBC's Alex Witt reports.

"There are two million Latino-owned businesses in America, a number that will be three million in the next decade, and a number that is growing very rapidly," McCain said. "The first consideration we should have when debating tax policy is how we can help those companies grow and increase the prosperity of the millions of American families whose economic security depends on their successes."

McCain was interrupted four times by anti-war protesters during the speech. He joked that one was a "very familiar voice to me." Two others carried pink banners and accused McCain of being a war criminal.

In his prepared remarks, McCain talked openly about his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and how he refused early release. It is a message the campaign has been ramping up in recent weeks, in an effort to highlight his patriotism and national service.

"My friend, my beloved friend, Everett Alvarez, a brave American of Mexican descent, had been shot down years before I was, and had suffered for his country much more and much longer than I had," McCain said of his experiences. "To leave him behind would have shamed us."

He acknowledged Hispanic men and women who have served the country, including those now serving abroad.

"When you take the solemn stroll along that wall of black granite on the national Mall, it is hard not to notice the many names such as Rodriguez, Hernandez, and Lopez that so sadly adorn it," he said. "When you visit Iraq and Afghanistan you will meet some of the thousands of Hispanic-Americans who serve there, and many of those who risk their lives to protect the rest of us."

He added that some are not citizens. McCain, who sponsored comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, said the measure had failed because it did not include secure borders.

"We will not succeed in the Congress of the United States until we convince a majority of American people that we have border security," McCain said. "But that does not have to be in an inhumane or cruel fashion."

He also spoke briefly on education and healthcare. He suggested athletes like Shaquille O'Neal and Alex Rodriguez could talk in schools about physical education.