By Susan Milligan
LOS ANGELES -- Faltering in opinion polls among Latinos, Barack Obama took his campaign yesterday to heavily Hispanic south Los Angeles, telling a crowd made up mainly of technical college students that the struggles of blacks and Hispanics are the same.
``In the past few weeks, we've heard some cynical talk about how black and white and Latino folks cannot come together,'' Obama told a crowd a boisterous crowd of about 1,000 at LA Technical Trade College. ``I am reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I worked alongside on the streets of Chicago decades ago,'' Obama said, recalling his days as a community organizer helping displaced steel workers.
``One of the things that happened when the plants closed was that everybody lost their jobs'' -- blacks, whites and Latinos, he said. ``Because people were divided, they felt disempowered, and sometimes they turned on each other.''
But ``if we could bring people back together...they could recognize themselves in each other,'' the Illinois lawmaker said.
Obama has trailed far behind New York Senator Hillary Clinton among Latino voters, a factor which helped put Clinton over the top in the Nevada caucuses last month. Obama is trying to shore up his relationship with Latinos ahead of Feb. 5, when many states with substantive Hispanic populations will hold primaries.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy yesterday stumped for Obama in New Mexico. The Obama camp hopes Kennedy's stamp of approval will help the Democratic presidential contender among Latinos, because Kennedy has a strong relationship with Hispanics. Many Latinos feel very close to the Kennedy family, said Cecelia Munoz, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza.
Obama pointedly noted his involvement in the immigration debate, a politically radioactive issue many other presidential candidates have largely avoided. ``We are a nation of laws, but we are also a nation of immigrants,'' Obama told the crowd, which yelled, ``si, se puede!'' -- yes, we can -- to punctuate Obama's remarks.
``My father, when he came here ... he, um, he didn't look like he came off the Mayflower,'' said Obama, whose black father was from Kenya. The candidate wondered aloud why people were so focused on immigrants coming from south of the border, instead of from Poland or Ireland.
But if Obama was hoping his ``town meeting'' would turn into a Dr. Phil-style encounter about race relations between blacks and Latinos, he didn't get one. The audience -- which included mainly Latinos and African-Americans -- asked about education, Darfur, Latin America policy and what qualities he'd like in a vice president. The last question brought a collective chuckle from the crowd, but Obama didn't bite.
``It's a little too early'' to speculate on that, Obama said. He added that he would make appointments to his administration who will restore ``competence and respect'' to government. As for the second-in-command, ``I want a candidate and a vice president that is reflective of the country,'' he added, without elaborating.
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.