Barack Obama is steadily winning over Hispanic voters, defying theories that the potentially crucial minority would be unlikely to support a black presidential candidate at this year's election, Latino leaders say.
Both Democratic hopeful Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain have targeted Hispanics in recent weeks, speaking at various Hispanic conferences in an effort to woo the largest minority group in the country.
Large populations of Hispanic voters are present in several key battleground states in the November 4 election, such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, as well as McCain's home state of Arizona.
Obama ran a distant second to Hillary Clinton amongst Hispanics during the gruelling primary race, fuelling suggestion of a racial divide that could benefit McCain in November. Members of Obama's campaign team reportedly acknowledged a "problem" with the Latino community after a crushing June 1 primary defeat to Clinton in Puerto Rico.
However, recent polls indicate that Obama is building a steady powerbase amongst Hispanics, with a Gallup survey earlier this month giving the Illinois senator a commanding 59 percent to 29 percent lead over McCain.
Latino leaders at the convention of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Hispanic civil rights group in the United States, told AFP that Obama was winning support because of a perception that McCain had "flip-flopped" on issues such as immigration reform.
Both Obama and McCain have stated their support for comprehensive immigration reform, although McCain has said securing borders should be given highest priority.
Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the powerful 1.9 million member Service Employees International Union, said McCain had sent out mixed messages.
"He wants us to believe that he's on our side but I think he's having a really hard time making it clear which side he's on," Medina told AFP.
McCain, who addressed the NCLR on Monday, was "trying to have it both ways", Medina told AFP.
"First he says to our community that he appreciates our contributions to this society and that we are God's children, but when it comes down to actually taking action to match his words with acts, he fails," she said.
McCain's Hispanic critics point to the Arizona senator's apparent reversal on immigration. McCain co-sponsored a stymied reform bill which included provisions for a path to citizenship for illegal workers but later disavowed the legislation during a primary campaign debate earlier this year.
Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra said the episode heightened uncertainty about McCain.
"We continue to see the two faces of John McCain, and we're trying to figure out which one we can trust," Becerra said. "It's hard when you have someone who's flip-flopping on the issues."
For Enrique Morones, the director of Border Angels, a group which aims to provide humanitarian support to immigrants entering the United States illegally, said Hispanic voters had more in common with Obama than McCain.
"The (NCLR) convention has exposed the lie that Hispanics would not support an African-American candidate. With Obama we have a common history, he knows what discrimination is," Morones told AFP.