McCain Hangs Tough on Immigration

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Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty

Arizona Senator John McCain.

In what his campaign billed as a major address on immigration today in Miami, Sen. John McCain reiterated his support for the controversial legislation currently before Congress that has caused some conservatives to turn their backs on the former front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination. In an exclusive interview with TIME, McCain acknowledged that his support of the bill, which is backed by President Bush, has hurt him with the Republican base and could end his quest for the nomination. But he told TIME: "It would be worth it, because it's a matter of national security, it's a matter of economic security, and it's a matter of what kind of nation we are."

In his speech to a meeting of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, McCain went beyond the issue of whether the legislation grants "amnesty" to illegal aliens — the focus of most of the conversative complaints — and stressed what he called the "humanitarian" reasons for reform. What critics deride as a "special path" to citizenship, he said in his speech, is special only in the sense that "it is harder, longer and more expensive than the path offered to those immigrants who come here legally." The Senator also went to unusual lengths to sympathetically portray the yearning for a better life among immigrants. In emotional terms he described the deaths suffered by those attempting to cross "the trackless deserts of Arizona, people who broke our laws, not to harm us, but to possess for themselves the ideals and opportunities cherished here."

While polls suggest that a slim majority of Republican voters support the immigration bill, opposition to its provision allowing citizenship has draw many attacks from conservatives within the party. Last week, President Bush dismissed opponents of the bill as "spreading fear," provoking sharp responses from typically reliable Administration allies such as Rush Limbaugh (who told his listeners the President stood to "lose some of you"). "I wish we could raise the level of dialogue on this issue," McCain told TIME.

McCain's defiant speech could further inflame this divisive conversation. The Washington Times has reported that the Republican National Committee has seen its small-donor contributions fall 40% since the immigration debate began in earnest last month, and that staffers link the decline directly to the issue: "Every donor in 50 states we reached has been angry, especially in the last month and a half, and for 99% of them immigration is the No. 1 issue." McCain, a co-author of the compromise legislation, is alone among the front-runners for the G.O.P. nomination who supports it. In his speech, McCain took a careful shot at his fellow candidates critical of the measure, asserting that those who reject his compromise, "especially if they are a candidate for President... should have the responsibility and courage to propose another way." He added pointedly: "To want the office so badly that you would intentionally make our country's problems worse might prove you can read a poll or take a cheap shot, but it hardly demonstrates presidential leadership."

This jab was in keeping with the particularly feisty attitude that the McCain campaign has shown lately. He recently criticized fellow G.O.P. candidate Mitt Romney for his wavering views on immigration, mocking the former governor's spotty gun rights record as well as accusations that he's employed illegal immigrants: "Maybe he can get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his yard," McCain said. More recently, an anonymous McCain staffer concluded a dueling series of press releases about the Iraq spending bill by taking a swipe at Democratic candidate Barack Obama's inexperience: "Obama wouldn't know the difference between an RPG and a bong."

But McCain told TIME that such combativeness came only as a response to others' attacks and insisted that his campaign does not intend to go on the offensive. "I've had conversations with the people that are close to me," he said. "We're not gonna do that. It's not helpful to me to get my message and my vision out. Now, you can't let an attack go unanswered, but at the same time you don't have to get into some kind of catfight." Asked specifically about his staffer's retort to Obama, he said, "I thought that that was inappropriate and whoever said that should not have said that." He added: "If it happens again, I'll fire the person who said it." When reminded that he laughed at the line when it was read back to him during a conference call with reporters, he said, "I think it was funny, but I still think it was inappropriate."

In the interview, McCain also underscored his belief in the "surge" strategy in Iraq. The New York Times has reported that the White House is considering reducing the troop strength there by at least half as soon as next year, but McCain contended that Bush, in personal conversations, has reiterated his support for a strong presence in the country. "Some people in the State Department and the Pentagon are trying to find the exit sign," said McCain, but "I don't see this President wavering. He may be, but I don't see it. He's committed to seeing this thing through as long as possible."