By Steve Holland
PHOENIX, July 14 (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who has hectored Democratic rival Barack Obama to visit Iraq, now says Obama should go to South America as well.
McCain, an Arizona senator, is to make the case in a speech on Monday in San Diego to the National Council of La Raza, one of the most important advocacy groups in the United States for Hispanic Americans.
McCain, who needs support from Hispanic Americans in his battle against Obama in the Nov. 4 presidential election, will tell the group about his support for a stalled free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia and a hemispheric trade pact.
"And while it is surely not my intention to become my opponent's scheduler, I hope Sen. Obama soon visits some of the other countries of the Americas for the first time," McCain is to say, according to excerpts released by his campaign. "Were he to do so, I think he, too, would see that stronger economic bonds with our neighbors and the closer friendships they encourage, are a great benefit in many ways to our country."
The statement represents an indirect criticism of Obama for his relative inexperience as a first-term Illinois senator.
McCain, who traveled recently to Colombia and Mexico and earlier this year went to Iraq, has criticized Obama for never having been to Iraq. Obama now is preparing to visit there.
McCain's support among Hispanic Americans is lagging behind that of Obama, who has attracted many Hispanics who had supported Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
He got in trouble in 2007 with Republican conservatives for pushing a proposed immigration law that would grant millions of illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship. He had to change his tune when the legislation collapsed in the U.S. Senate.
McCain now argues for securing the U.S. border with Mexico first and then embarking on legislation to allow illegal immigrants to work legally in the United States.
"I know many of you are Democrats and many of you would usually vote for the presidential candidate of that party," McCain was to tell the National Council of La Raza. "I know I must work hard to win your votes but you have always given me a respectful hearing and I appreciate it."
McCain was to say that Obama "is a fine man, and an inspiring public figure" but that "I intend to compete for your votes by continuing to earn your trust."
McCain, who has backed Bush administration efforts to preserve the financially troubled Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae mortgage finance giants, also will stress his concern about the U.S. economy.
"Over 400,000 people have lost their jobs since December and the rate of new job creation has fallen sharply," he was to say. "Americans are worried about the security of their current job and they're worried that they, their kids and their neighbors may not find good jobs and new opportunities in the future." (Editing by Bill Trott)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)