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Obama vows to be Latino champion

From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Obama promised to be a partner and champion for America's Hispanics if he wins the White House.

In a roughly 45-minute speech and question-and-answer session at a conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Saturday, Obama highlighted his work with Latino leaders and called the Hispanics "an aspirational community that embodies the best of the American Dream."

VIDEO: When Barack Obama and John McCain spoke at a meeting of Hispanic voters in Washington D.C., they weren't side by side. But NBC's Lee Cowan reports that didn't stop them from sniping at one another.

The presumptive Democratic nominee hopes to win over Latino voters, a key voting bloc in several states, including places like Colorado and New Mexico, red states where he is campaigning in the hopes of turning them blue. The senator plans to address League of United Latin America Citizens national convention here on July 8 and the National Council of La Raza annual conference in San Diego on July 13.

"This election could well come down to how many Latinos turn out to vote, and I'm proud that my campaign is working hard to register more Latinos, and bring them into the political process," he told an enthusiastic crowd. "Because I truly believe that if we work together and fight together and stand together this fall, then you and I together -- not only will we change registration rolls, not only will I win the presidency -- but we are gonna change the political map. We are gonna change it from top to bottom. We will create the kind of empowerment in your communities that we have not seen ever in this United States of America."

Obama, whose speech followed rival John McCain's, was warmly received with a standing ovation and chants of "O-ba-ma" and "Si se puede!"

He began by acknowledging the historic nature of his own candidacy.

"I'm proud to be here today not just as the Democratic nominee for President, but as the first African-American nominee of my party, and I'm hoping that somewhere out there in the audience sits the person who will be the first Latino nominee," he said to applause.

He went on to restate his support for comprehensive immigration reform that focuses on both enforcement and providing a path to citizenship for the roughly 12 million people here illegally and he criticized McCain for changing his position on reform due to what he called "politics."

"There is one place where Sen. McCain and I agreed and we used to work together to offer change on immigration and I -- he deserves great credit as a champion of comprehensive reform. I admire him for it," he said. "I know that he talked about that when he just spoke before you, but what he didn't mention is that when he was running for his party's nomination, he walked away from that commitment. He said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote."

During the Q&A, Obama answered questions on the housing crisis, infrastructure issues, immigration reform, healthcare, education, the effect of globalization on jobs and about ending the war in Iraq, saying the Latino community has "borne the brunt of service and casualties" in Iraq and arguing that ending the war would free up more money for foreign aid to Latin America.

He closed his speech with a little bit of Spanish, saying  "We are all Americans. Todos somos Americanos."

While McCain's appearance was interrupted several times by anti-war protestors, none interrupted Obama, though about a dozen Code Pink protestors were posted outside the hotel holding signs that included, "Viva la paz" (long live peace.)

McCain campaign spokeman Brian Rogers sent this response to Obama's attack: "It's quite audacious for Barack Obama to question John McCain's commitment to immigration reform when it was Obama himself who worked to kill the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform compromise last year. Barack Obama voted for five 'poison pill' amendments designed by special interests to kill the immigration reform deal. These efforts were strongly opposed by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), the Democrat who led the fight for immigration reform, because he understood they would have the effect of ending the bipartisan work toward immigration reform.

Rogers said Obama had "never reached across the aisle to lead in a bipartisan fashion on an issue of major importance to the American people when his own political interests were at risk" and called him a typical politician.

The Obama campaign, though, sent out its own rebuttal, saying McCain actually thanked Obama for his "commitment to this issue" on the Senate floor on May 25, 2006.