SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Whether the code word of the day is "patriotism," "liberation theology" or "working-class voters," some will continue to cast this presidential election in the tired old paradigm of black and white. But, I'd ask Barack Obama and John McCain to look beyond all that and consider: What can brown do for you?
Ruben Navarrette says that up to 10 million Latinos could cast their votes in the fall election.
The candidates seem eager to find out. Next week, both will come to San Diego to address the 40th annual Conference of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy organization. The group doubles as a convenient piñata for cable news demagogues and other fear mongers who frame the immigration debate in the divisive parlance of "us vs. them" -- something that helps give it a distinctive anti-Hispanic flavor.
That is something that, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic voters are likely to have stuck in their craw in November. In a normal election, that would be just one issue. But with the mood in this country souring against Hispanics, many of those voters are itching to say: "No mas."
There are 46 million Latinos in the United States. And, contrary to what the nativist fringe thinks, that figure refers to U.S. citizens and legal residents. Illegal immigrants are, shall we say, off the books. At least 9 million Latinos are expected to cast ballots in the fall, but that number could go as high as 10 million. They could have a disproportionate influence on the election because they're swing voters concentrated in battleground states.
And because this year, neither Obama nor McCain has a lock on Hispanic voters, even if it appears otherwise at the moment. Polls show that among Hispanics, Obama is leading by a 2-to-1 ratio. The presumptive Democratic nominee benefits from what is for most Hispanics, with the exception of Cuban-Americans, a near-hypnotic loyalty to the Democratic brand. That's poetic since Obama spent the last several months being pummeled by Hispanics' affection for the Clinton brand.
But don't count out McCain. Hispanics will vote for the right kind of Republican, i.e. one who doesn't pick on them to score political points. As the presumptive Republican nominee himself noted in Colombia last week, he has done very well with these voters, earning as much as 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in Arizona in his 2004 re-election. Six years earlier, it was 65 percent.
I saw McCain's 1998 re-election up close, since I was in Phoenix at the time, writing for the Arizona Republic. It wasn't just McCain's moderate views on immigration that did the trick. Many Hispanics in Arizona told me that they appreciate McCain's independence and the courageous way he is willing to challenge members of his own party when he thinks they're wrong, as they often are, for example, on -- wait for it -- immigration.
McCain doesn't need to match his Arizona performance in November. Political strategists will tell you that because the Hispanic vote normally goes to Democrats, a Republican can usually get elected president if he carves off 35 percent. McCain has a good chance of doing that, especially if Obama unwittingly gives him an opening. After all, Obama's support among Hispanics is softer than Hillary Clinton's seemed to be.
Obama and McCain are addressing the NCLR because they think the organization is an entrée to Hispanic voters. It is, and it isn't. Mostly, it's an opportunity for the next president -- no matter who he is -- to show a little respect to a community of Americans that hasn't experienced much of it lately.
Why didn't you say so? In that case, senators, welcome to San Diego. Bienvenidos.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.