McCain Gains as Furor Over Immigration Cools

By: Wall Street Journal

Six months ago, when Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign was left for dead at the side of the road to the White House, he seemed to have perished because he was in the wrong place on two important issues: Iraq and immigration.

Today, as Republican voters go to the polls in Florida to determine whether Sen. McCain has become the clear favorite to win the Republican nomination, it is worth considering how things have turned around. On Iraq, the about-face is easy to explain: Things got better on the ground there, and Sen. McCain’s support for the war and a new strategy for fighting it now looks more like wisdom than stubbornness.

But what about immigration? There, the answer is more subtle. In fact, immigration is a case study in how changing circumstances can alter the way a hot issue plays in a campaign. Sen. McCain was in trouble because his support for immigration reform, including a guest-worker program and a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants, appeared out of step with a Republican base that had turned hostile to the immigration overhaul.

Now a combination of factors — the disappearance of the issue from Washington’s legislative agenda; Sen. McCain’s own quiet shift in posture; the rise of other concerns — have helped damp the fires of anger on immigration. Today’s vote will show how those forces have worked in Hispanic-heavy Florida, and Sen. McCain’s foes may yet choose to turn up the heat on the immigration debate as they try to overtake him. But for now it appears that immigration, while a burning question for some Republicans, isn’t the top issue for most of them. (See article on the Democratic bid for Florida’s Hispanics).

Immigration erupted as a problem for Sen. McCain last spring, when Congress began debating — for the third time — a comprehensive plan urged by President Bush. It would have combined new border-security measures with steps to bring immigrant workers out of the shadows.

The legislation included both a guest-worker program and a plan to allow those working in the U.S. illegally to register, pay a fine and become legally documented workers. The idea was to get more control over the more than 10 million illegal immigrants already here, and to lessen the pressure for more illegal immigration.

Sen. McCain, from the border state of Arizona, supported the legislation. But to a vocal group of critics within his party, it amounted to giving “amnesty” to those in the U.S. illegally. At a Republican debate the first week of June, Sen. McCain was pilloried by his foes for backing the bill.

Sen. McCain’s candidacy got a reprieve on June 7, when the legislation collapsed on the Senate floor and died for the year. That meant Washington stopped forcing the issue into the spotlight. “Every time you bring it up, it’s just like throwing gasoline on the fire,” says Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a McCain supporter who found that support for immigration reform was one of the factors that undercut his own presidential bid. “By the third time we brought it up, people were flaming mad. Now it’s not being brought up and nothing happened.”

The death of the bill also allowed Sen. McCain to subtly alter his position without actually reversing it. Now when asked about immigration, he replies with a border-security-first formulation, as he did Sunday on NBC TV’s “Meet the Press.” The lesson he drew from the debate last year, he said, is that Americans “want the border secured first, and I would do that.” Only then, he added, would he move on to other reforms.

Immigration still could be a land mine on Sen. McCain’s route to the White House, of course. It remains a potential problem for him in some key states, especially California.

It’s also clear, though, that if Sen. McCain can survive those tests and win the nomination, his more nuanced position on immigration would be an asset, rather than a liability, in a general election. That’s when Republicans will desperately need to win back some Hispanic voters turned off by the tenor of the immigration debate.

The other McCain advantage is the emerging evidence that immigration isn’t quite the leading issue it once seemed. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, illegal immigration ranked fourth among issues cited by voters overall, and third among Republicans, behind the economy and terrorism. “There are people who talk about it and are angry about it, but when you get down to it, it’s not the No. 1 for very many voters,” says Frank Donatelli, a longtime Republican activist and a McCain backer.

The lingering problem for Sen. McCain is California, where anything resembling a soft-on-immigration image could be a problem with Republicans who vote in the state’s Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primary. “The issue of illegal immigration is of great concern to California, and has been historically,” says Bill Jones, chairman of the McCain campaign in California. Thus, he stresses the new McCain formulation: “The senator’s position is: Secure the border first.”

More intriguing is the possibility that Sen. McCain’s profile on immigration might become an asset if he wins the nomination. Here are the statistics that should concern Republicans: More than 18 million Hispanics are eligible to vote in the U.S., and a survey by the Pew Hispanic Center late last year showed them leaning Democratic by a 57%-to-23% margin. The Republican goal this year, says Kenneth Duberstein, former White House chief of staff under President Reagan, ought to be to build a new “Reagan coalition” that broadens the party beyond its traditional base to just such groups as Hispanics. Could John McCain’s record of being more open on immigration help there?

Write to Gerald Seib at

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:
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