On the morning of June 5, 2007, in a packed firehouse in Gilford, N.H., Fergus Cullen watched Arizona Sen. John McCain getting "hammered on immigration" in a back and forth with locals angry over the influx of illegal workers. "They kept coming back to it again and again," says Cullen, the state's GOP chairman. To little effect, McCain defended his immigration bill that gave a path to citizenship to many of the country's estimated 12 million illegals.
That night, CNN beamed McCain's struggles into homes nationwide from a debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. His chief rivals, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, took turns slamming McCain's bill, cowritten by Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. McCain's rejoinder that America is "still the land of opportunity" fell on deaf ears.
Within a month, McCain's presidential hopes were written off by nearly everyone. His bill died in the Senate. And financial woes and internal squabbling caused four top aides to quit his reeling campaign. By mid-July, support for the onetime heir apparent to the Republican nomination had plummeted to 9 percent, according to a Zogby poll.
Comeback. Now the Republican nominee, McCain resurrected his campaign through grit and some fortuitous events—including a favorable nominating calendar, the success of the Iraq surge strategy he championed, and flawed opponents. But McCain made his own luck, too.
He veered the Straight Talk Express to the right of his centrist record of supporting comprehensive reform on immigration (also backed by the White House), which includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal workers who meet certain requirements. By echoing the right's concerns over border security and de-emphasizing legalization, McCain suddenly found traction among restive conservatives.
Now McCain has to find a way to reoccupy the center for the general election. For the Democratic contenders, who essentially carry the same beliefs and voting record as McCain on immigration, the task is considerably easier. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are aligned with their party base in favor of comprehensive reform. Not so for McCain, who is trying to please a party in upheaval without alienating Hispanic support, which may be key to winning the White House.
President Reagan had the Hispanic vote in mind when he granted roughly 3 million illegal immigrants amnesty in 1986. Hispanics, often conservative on social issues, indeed warmed to the GOP. In 2004, President Bush nabbed more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, propelling him back to office.
But the deal had a catch: Reagan promised he would secure the border and sanction employers who hired illegal workers. It never happened. "The American public feels betrayed, and they are rightly frustrated," says Joseph Chamie of the Center for Migration Studies.
Congress's attempts to respond have only inflamed tensions. The Senate bill that was brokered by McCain and Kennedy in 2006 created a guest-worker program that offered qualified applicants an opportunity for legalization. But the deal collapsed in a confrontation with the House, where conservatives blasted the bill as amnesty. The House proposal expedited the detention and removal of illegal aliens, and the stridency of the rhetoric offended many Hispanics and sparked national protests.
The second shot at McCain's immigration bill—tougher on illegal workers than the first—came in the summer of 2007 just as his campaign ramped up. At political events, he began tangling with crowds about his Senate work, arguing that reform and border security could happen simultaneously. "What he found out doing retail politics is that people didn't believe that," says McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin. "They did not believe the government would [close the border]."
Breathing room. The bill's failure last June turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave McCain room to maneuver. When Cullen saw McCain in August, he heard him stressing border security. "He got the message" from conservatives to close the border first, Cullen says. Reform would have to wait. Even so, McCain has struggled to feel his way through the issue. He took hits for flip-flopping when he supported a now stalled enforcement-only immigration bill last summer that provided no path to legalization. When it came to his own failed comprehensive reform bill, McCain has been back and forth on whether he continues to favor it. When pressed by Tim Russert on Meet the Press in January, McCain insisted questions about the bill were "moot." Reluctantly, he said he would sign such a bill if he became president. A few days later in a CNN debate, McCain said he would not. According to Holtz-Eakin, the latter continues to be McCain's stance.