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McCain, Obama to court Hispanics

John McCain and Barack Obama will make back to back appearances Saturday before an influential crowd of Hispanic leaders -- the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The group in a new report estimates some 9.2 million Latino voters will cast ballots in November's election -- a record Latino turnout based on a steady growth in voting.

NALEO notes that the fastest-growing voting bloc is proving its chops: Latino voters, it says, "played an essential role" in McCain's Florida primary victory. Though Mitt Romney edged out McCain among non-Hispanic white voters 34 to 33 percent, Republican Hispanics gave McCain 54 percent of their vote, compared to 24 percent for Rudy Giuliani and 14 percent for Romney.

And the group notes Hispanic voters were "critical to the comeback success of Sen. Hillary Clinton in Texas.."

There's opportunity and risk in the crowd for both candidates: Though most Hispanics may have preferred his better known Democratic rival, Obama's campaign says it plans to heavily
target Hispanics in swing states like Florida. He met Thursday night with Clinton and about 40 of her key Hispanic advisors, including Florida's Ana Cruz, who helped put together Florida For Hillary during the primary.

Cruz said the Clinton backers were impressed with Obama, who greeted the group without an entourage and pledged to work for their support.

"He genuinely understands you can't win without women and without Hispanics," Cruz said.

McCain, who along with most of his GOP rivals skipped NALEO's conference last summer during the primaries, agreed earlier this month to address the conference. McCain represents a border state and took a leading role in pushing for immigration reform, but critics say he tacked to the right when he began campaigning  for president.

But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said she's confident he'll get Hispanic support: "I know first hand the inspiration John McCain has provided to the entire Latino community," she said.