- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2008

TIGERVILLE, S.C. — Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee yesterday continued to move to the right on immigration during this year’s presidential campaign, signing a pledge to enforce immigration laws and to make all illegal aliens go home.

The pledge, offered by immigration control advocacy group Numbers USA, commits Mr. Huckabee to oppose a new path to citizenship for current illegal aliens and to cut the number of illegal aliens already in the country through attrition by law enforcement — something Mr. Huckabee said he will achieve through his nine-point immigration plan.

“Some would say it’s a tough plan. It is, but it’s also fair and reasonable,” Mr. Huckabee said.

Mr. Huckabee signed the pledge in South Carolina, whose Saturday Republican primary is shaping up as the most important contest so far. Unlike the previous primaries and caucuses, which have been contested usually by just two candidates, four Republicans are making all-out efforts here: Mr. Huckabee, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

Mr. Romney campaigned in South Carolina fresh off his Tuesday win over Mr. McCain in Michigan’s primary. And though he held a lead here earlier last year, he tried to lower expectations yesterday, telling reporters that the pressure is really on Mr. McCain, who now leads in the polls here.

As the front-runner, Mr. McCain finds himself playing defense. Yesterday, he had one surrogate challenge charges on abortion and other issues from Common Sense Issues, a Colorado-based group that the Associated Press said is conducting push-polling here, and had another group of surrogates respond to charges from a group called Vietnam Veterans Against McCain.

The McCain campaign said the veterans group is circulating fliers that say Mr. McCain turned his back on fellow prisoners of war in order to receive special treatment while in captivity in Vietnam.

One issue that continues to hurt Mr. McCain here is immigration. Many voters say he supports amnesty for illegal aliens, and they point to his partnership with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, to try to pass a bill to legalize illegal aliens.

Mr. McCain has said he “got the message” from his bill’s defeat last year in the Senate — when a majority of senators voted to filibuster his bill.

He says that as a senator from a border state, he knows how to secure the borders and says border governors would have to certify that fact before a guest-worker program and legalization could go forward. But Mr. McCain still supports a pathway to citizenship, and it’s not clear how different his new stance is from the bill that failed.

Mr. Huckabee has faced some of the same questions, and yesterday’s pledge — signed at a press conference with Numbers USA Executive Director Roy Beck — was an effort to provide answers.

It’s a major reversal from less than two months ago, when Mr. Beck told The Washington Times that Mr. Huckabee was “an absolute disaster” on immigration during his time as governor. Americans for Better Immigration, another group Mr. Beck runs, has rated Mr. Huckabee’s record as “poor.”

Mr. Huckabee fought for tuition breaks for illegal-alien college students, failed to complete an agreement to let state police enforce federal immigration law and criticized enforcement efforts both at the federal and state level.

But Mr. Beck yesterday said Mr. Huckabee has made a number of key promises going forward, including to not grant illegal aliens long-term legal status; to reject a guaranteed right of return for those who go home voluntarily under his nine-point plan; and to not increase green cards as a way of allowing them to come back more quickly.

“Probably, this is the strongest no-amnesty, attrition plan of any of the candidates,” Mr. Beck said.

Numbers USA does not plan to endorse a candidate. The group has asked all of the candidates to sign the pledge, but Mr. Huckabee is the only one to do so.

Mr. Beck said doing so will improve Mr. Huckabee’s rating on the issue, bringing him in line with Mr. Thompson, Mr. Romney and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Huckabee continued tapping into the network of Christian conservatives that served him well in winning the Iowa caucuses. He signed his immigration pledge at North Greenville University, a Christian school in the state’s far northwestern corner, after holding a rally with hundreds of students there.

In his speech to the students, Mr. Huckabee took a swipe at Mr. McCain on immigration, though he didn’t mention the senator by name.

“I don’t think electing somebody who’s part of the Washington scene makes a lot of sense, because if they could’ve fixed it, they would have,” Mr. Huckabee said. “It’s the principle that says that if you’re faithful in little [things], you’re given responsibility over greater things. But if you’re not faithful with what you have, we don’t give you greater responsibility, we take that responsibility and we give it to someone who might exercise it more responsibly.”

At the end of the rally, the students held a group prayer led by school President James B. Epting.

“You’ve got to be pleased that one who loves You is running for such an important position,” Mr. Epting said in his prayer.

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