Sen. John McCain yesterday pleaded with his fellow candidates for the Republican presidential nomination not to take political advantage of the immigration fight within the party.
“I would hope they wouldn’t play politics for their own interests if the cost of their ambition was to make this problem even harder to solve,” Mr. McCain said. “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.”
Mr. McCain of Arizona has now hitched his presidential campaign squarely to the immigration issue, running directly against many of his party’s most faithful voters and trying to rally support to the bill pending in the Senate.
In a speech to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Mr. McCain said the government cannot enforce the laws on the books against the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens and said they are living with a “de facto amnesty.” He said Republicans who oppose his bill must explain how their solution will do better.
Immigration is rending the Republican Party, with President Bush accusing his base supporters of trying to “frighten people” on the bill; those same supporters accusing him of failing as president.
Mr. McCain is in the middle of the fight, having been associated with the push for legalization for several years. Last year’s Senate measure was commonly known as the McCain-Kennedy bill, after Mr. McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who was his partner in its drafting.
Earlier this year, Mr. McCain appeared to back away from the debate, but in the past few weeks has tied himself to Mr. Bush and even taken on the role of chief cheerleader for the bill, sending out material supporting the bill to reporters covering the campaign.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one of Mr. McCain’s rivals for the nomination, said yesterday Mr. McCain’s bill “falls short of a workable solution.”
He said his own solution would not include “special incentives” for illegal aliens.
The issue is huge for Republican primary voters, and is still ripe for a champion, judging by last weekend’s Republican Party of Virginia dinner in Richmond. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who is considering a run for the Republican nomination, drew a standing ovation for saying the government must demonstrate border security before talking about legalization of illegal aliens.
“You’ve got to secure the border first, before you do anything,” he said. “The members say it’s right here in this bill: the border. The response is, ‘We don’t care what’s on a piece of paper — secure the border.’ This piece of paper doesn’t secure the border.”
On the Democratic side, the major presidential candidates all support a generous program to give illegal aliens a path to citizenship. But the issue did produce some backtracking by Democrats at Sunday night’s debate.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware said that while he voted for erecting fencing along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, he didn’t intend it as a statement on illegal immigration, but rather on drug trafficking. He also said he doesn’t think all 700 miles planned should be fenced.
“I voted for the fence related to drugs,” he said.