Iraq, Immigration Present Problems For McCain
Friday, March 23rd 2007, 1:50 pm
News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Immigration and Iraq present opposite threats to John McCain's presidential candidacy. The former could undercut his bid for the Republican nomination; the latter, his chances for winning the White House.
``Mistakes were made'' in Iraq, the Arizona senator told Iowans one recent afternoon. ``But the fact is, we are where we are.'' He argues that President Bush's troop-level increase must be given a chance to succeed because failure will result in terrorism on U.S. soil.
Minutes later, he pivots to immigration.
``We need to secure our borders. That is our first priority,'' McCain says as he calls for a temporary-worker program and a way to deal with illegal immigrants already in the U.S. ``We can't deport 12 million people overnight.''
As he campaigns, McCain explains his positions pre-emptively yet still faces voters' questions. He did in Iowa and, to some extent, in New Hampshire, during bus tours last week. He returned to New Hampshire on Friday.
The two issues loom large in the 2008 race. As McCain seeks the White House a second time, he is linked to both and each could affect his candidacy.
Long a critic of the way the war was waged, McCain refuses to waver in his support of the Iraq troop increase despite growing public opposition to the four-year-old conflict that has claimed more than 3,200 American lives. His position plays well among GOP loyalists who will choose their presidential nominee early next year; polls find a majority of Republicans favor the increase.
``His Iraq policy will not hurt him with Republicans,'' said state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann of Wilton, Iowa, who is neutral in the race.
Indeed, at a standing-room-only Elk's Lodge in Mason City, McCain gave his take on the war to a hushed audience. Some people nodded in agreement as he spoke. Those who asked questions on Iraq or commented about it tended not to challenge his stance.
``My complaint is the cut-and-run politicians in Washington. I think we have to stay in and win this thing,'' Jim O'Brien, a veteran of two wars, told McCain as the crowd responded with hearty applause.
``I agree with him,'' Scott Tornquist, a Mason City councilman, said later of McCain. ``There were mistakes that we made, and he acknowledged that, and I appreciated that.''
McCain likely would get a cooler reception if he made the same pitch in a general election, where he would be seeking to win over Republicans as well as independents and, perhaps, Democrats. Polls show about two-thirds of people in the U.S. oppose the additional combat troops.
The senator is keenly aware he may be risking the presidency with his position, but says: ``I would rather lose a campaign than lose a war.''
Immigration presents a different problem for McCain.
The GOP is fiercely divided on the issue.
Hard-line conservatives demand tougher border security and shun all other proposals.
Other Republicans argue for ``comprehensive reform.'' This approach would pair more secure borders with a temporary-worker program while providing an eventual path to citizenship for some of the country's 12 million illegal immigrants.
McCain takes the latter view. He has been among those senators leading an effort to get broad legislation passed.
Polls show that two of three people in the U.S. back comprehensive legislation. Roughly the same percentage of Republicans do, too.
Nevertheless, McCain's stance could hinder his chances of winning the GOP nomination because the path starts in Iowa where passions flare over immigration.
``McCain will not win in Iowa because of immigration. He's a liberal on it,'' said Larry Smith, a state GOP committeeman from Truro, Iowa, who is not aligned with a candidate.
McCain, obviously, disputes that characterization. ``I think overall, most Americans realize we have to have a practical approach,'' he told reporters.
Yet, at every campaign stop in the state, people in the GOP-leaning audiences expressed their frustration _ and sometimes outright anger _ about what they call a lack of federal action to stop illegal immigration.
``I want to know, on behalf of other veterans, why we are not protecting our border at all? It is a joke,'' Jeff Heiden, an Iraq veteran from Marshalltown, Iowa, told McCain at a question-and-answer session at an Ames hotel.
McCain reiterated his position. ``I was not satisfied,'' Heiden told reporters afterward.
Hours later, a man in Mason City told McCain: ``For people just coming across, they should not expect to receive the benefits of this country without first having to go through the law and procedures to be a U.S. citizen.''
The next day in Cedar Falls, another man added: ``You're from Arizona, and I don't think that I ever really heard you getting real serious about doing something about the immigration problem.''
Just before leaving Iowa, McCain expressed surprise at the intensity of the issue. ``Immigration is probably a more powerful issue here than in almost any place I've been,'' he said at a news conference.
Then McCain, who has favored allowing some illegal immigrants to become citizens without leaving the U.S., indicated that to get legislation passed, he was willing to look more closely at a proposal that would require them to return to their native country before applying for citizenship.
The proposal by GOP Rep. Mike Pence, a conservative from Indiana, is not one McCain has been open to in the past. But it is one that could help him score points with the conservatives he needs to become the Republican nominee.