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.
The Democrats have done their own dance. In an October debate, Clinton waffled on whether she backed driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, first declaring her support and then her opposition. Obama pounced, stating, "I can't tell whether she was for it or against it."
Clinton and Obama, over objections from the liberal base, both voted for the controversial 700-mile-long border fence in 2006. And in wooing working-class voters, they have argued for tougher sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers. But they have also bashed the administration's execution of the border fence, the construction of which has stalled, and downplayed their votes in favor of it, especially in Texas, where it is reviled. In arguing for a smarter immigration bill in Texas, Obama stated that the fence is "not going to work."
The Democrats have taken little heat in the primary season for their views on immigration. Indeed, the biggest clash between the two is who will secure sweeping immigration reform fastest once elected president. McCain, however, is still under fire. In February, after essentially sealing the nomination, he heard audience cries of "No amnesty" during his speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, blasts McCain's rhetorical shift as "transparently insincere."
Branding. Should rank-and-file conservatives feel the same way, it'll spell trouble for McCain on Election Day. "Will McCain be able to get that final portion of conservatives to come out and vote for him?" Krikorian asks. "I think the answer is probably not. And immigration is the issue." But the issue cuts both ways. McCain is a "formidable candidate in the Latino community," given his long-standing support of immigrant rights, says Cecilia Muñoz, a senior vice president at the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights advocacy group for Hispanics. Muñoz, who officially remains neutral but personally volunteers for Obama, argues that he's the only Republican who could draw a significant number of Hispanic votes from the Democratic nominee. "McCain is really uniquely positioned to do what George Bush did, which is capture 40 percent of the Latino vote." That's a number that some pollsters say Republicans will need to win the White House. But she adds that McCain's promise is undercut by his rhetorical shift to the right and the fact that among Hispanics, "the Republican brand has been badly damaged" by its association with hard-liners like Rep. Tom Tancredo, who warns that immigration is turning America into a balkanized, bilingual nation.
Even the faith of evangelical Hispanics is shaken when it comes to the GOP. Calling some of the rhetoric xenophobic and nativist, Samuel Rodriguez, president of the conservative National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, doubts that Hispanics will strongly support McCain, because the GOP did not "repudiate the venom and verbiage coming out of [party hard-liners]."
GOP analysts retort that any anti-immigrant threads in the party are exaggerated. After all, Tancredo's presidential run collapsed even before the Iowa caucus. And Romney, who took one of the toughest stances on immigration during his campaign, also failed. Of course, Hispanic voters are far from monolithic, and border security resonates with just about everyone.
GOP strategists hope that McCain can avoid sacrificing Hispanics for conservatives. But insiders believe McCain would be wise to court the conservatives. "They are the ones who go out and knock on doors and hand out fliers at strip malls," says Republican strategist Greg Mueller. "They get the vote out." The conservative vote alone, though, won't be enough. It's up to McCain's camp to figure out a message that will bring Hispanics and conservatives together.