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John McCain would love probably love dearly to shed the nativist dead weight that is the rest of the Republican Party. But he can’t — most of all because it’s not in his nature. Mr. "Straight Talk" can’t help but pander to whoever his audience is.

So when he’s surrounded by nativists, he talks like them, getting all tough on "border security." When he’s in a more thoughtful setting, he gets all fuzzy about "comprehensive reform."

It’s already gotten him into trouble with the nativist wing — which ranges from the Malkinite and Tancredoan wingnuts to the Ron Paulian wingnuts, who actually hate each other but are united in their loathing of the GOP nominee, referring to him as "Juan" McCain. He keeps making gestures in their direction, but so far it is not working very well.

And it’s selling even worse with Latinos, who already suspect McCain of opportunism simply because he’s a Republican in the mold of Bush (lots of nice talk but an ugly reality). When he openly panders to his party’s wingnuts, as he’s been doing, the suspicions turn to a big fat thumbs down.

According to the most recent NBC poll, Barack Obama leads McCain among Hispanic voters by a 62-28 percentage margin. That’s much worse than even the 44 percent of the Latino vote that Bush reportedly managed to get in 2004 (at least according to some exit polls, though other polls showed him faring much worse).

McCain believes he can do better, but it sounds like wishful thinking. A sympathetic piece at Real Clear Politics (which gives a generous accounting of his flip-flopping on immigration) quotes an optimistic campaign spokesman:

Nationally, McCain will have work to do in convincing Latinos to join him. "Do [Hispanics] know John McCain? The answer is, well, not yet," said Lionel Sosa, a Republican ad maker who has already cut advertisements for McCain in advance of the general election.

Actually, they may be getting to know him all too well. McCain, after all, plays the same pander-to-the-audience schtick on other issues: torture, wiretapping, the Iraq war, on and on.

Still, his biggest problem with Latinos, as the WaPo notes, is the Republican brand in general, especially on immigration, where the debate has turned into an outright Latino-bashing frenzy:

McCain’s problem will be the tarnished reputation of his party. Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, points out that nothing may affect him among Latinos as much as the "R" beside his name. While McCain will remain sufficiently moderate on immigration, despite some politically expedient tips of the hat to certain segments of the conservative base, the GOP’s association with hard-line measures is a galvanizing force among Latino voters. While only half of them are immigrants, most have come to see the anti-illegal immigrant crusade of the last three years as an anti-Latino movement.

… But it may turn out that Obama’s best allies for getting out the Latino vote will be Bush’s Homeland Security Department and media personalities that live to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment. While the immigration issue has faded from the presidential campaign, the increase in raids throughout the country — the number of undocumented immigrants arrested at workplaces rose more than sevenfold between 2002 and 2006 — and the continued pounding of the issue in primetime by Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck will keep it very much alive for Latino voters. And that will only benefit the Democrats.

There was some concern, however, heading out of the primaries that Obama might have trouble attracting Latino votes, since a substantial majority of Hispanics preferred Hillary Clinton in a number of large states. But that concern hasn’t panned out, and it has a lot to do with what the two candidates are offering.

A piece by Maribel Hastings of the Spanish-language La Opinion newspaper examined some of the reasoning that’s taking place among voters:

Upon closer scrutiny of both candidate positions, there are differences. For example, McCain opposes the Dream Act that benefits undocumented students and Obama supports it; McCain opposes giving driving licenses to illegal immigrants; Obama supports it.

Nevertheless, both would vote in favor of building a wall on the southern border.

"But the most important differences are less obvious and have to do with what type of reform they’ll propose and try to pass," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

According to Munoz, McCain’s talk on immigration changes "depending on his audience."

"We had George Bush’s heart behind immigration reform and that wasn’t enough. I think John McCain’s heart is behind the legislation but we don’t know if he wants or would be able to really push through the type of reform he wants," she added.

"Not only is he trying to placate Latino voters, but the anti-immigrant side of his party as well, and this will constrain him in an important way" said Munoz.

… But, according to Munoz, the fact that Obama promises to advance immigration reform in the beginning of his possible administration not only is a message to the immigrant community but also to Congress.

"It’s the type of difference with [John McCain] that is less obvious but equally important: the quality of the compromise," she concluded.

There’s also the quality of the candidate. One panders, the other leads.  If Obama continues on that path, and makes that distinction clear to voters, he has a chance now to secure the Latino vote by a substantial margin. But it isn’t an opportunity that can wait.

Meanwhile, be sure to read Roberto Lovato’s thoughts on Obama and McCain.