McCain Still Dogged by Immigration Issue

McCain gets questions on campaign trail about his immigration position.

ByRON CLAIBORNE

Dec. 26, 2007 — -- When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., campaigns in Iowa this week, sooner or later, he will surely be asked at a town hall event about one issue that has bedeviled him for months: illegal immigration.

It comes up at almost every stop, no matter what state he's in — Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan or South Carolina.

It was the first question from the audience when he triumphantly announced the Joe Lieberman endorsement last week in New Hampshire.

It was the first question at the final event of that same long day.

For many Americans, especially conservative Republicans, immigration is one of their most important concerns and a key determinant of whom they'll vote for in the primaries.

For many of those same voters, McCain — co-sponsor of the immigration bill that died in Congress earlier this year — is on the wrong side of the issue.

The McCain-Kennedy bill — there's nothing like coupling your name to Ted Kennedy's to automatically enrage some conservatives — would create a path to so-called earned citizenship for some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. To some voters, earned citizenship for someone who came into the country illegally is tantamount to amnesty.

These days, when questions about immigration are asked, McCain says he "got the message."

"The message is the American people want the border secured," McCain told the woman who asked him at the event in Weare, N.H., about his stand on "illegal aliens."

"I will secure the border and I would have the border state governors certify that their border are secure," he said, "Then, we would move onto other issues," such as what to do about those illegal immigrants already in the country.

He hasn't exactly renounced the bill he championed in the spring, but he has fine-tuned his position and changed the emphasis to assure the skeptics and critics — and there are many — that dealing with the fate of those already in the country only occurs after the borders are secured.

"I still believe we have to have a temporary worker program that works and addresses the issues of the 12 million people that are here illegally," McCain said in Weare, racing through this part of his answer in much the same way announcers do with the disclaimers at the end of pharmaceutical commercials.

Then, more slowly, more emphatically, he added: "But we've got to first secure the borders to assure the American people that if you address the other parts of the issue we will not have another 12 million illegal immigrant come into our country."

Even as McCain enjoys a surge in the polls in New Hampshire and has attracted renewed attention from the media that had written him off a month ago, immigration remains a political minefield for him.

The issue is probably as much responsible as anything for his failure to gain much traction in Iowa.

Although he is still mired in single digits in the polls there — hovering very close to Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas — his campaign may be gambling that his current momentum can lift him to a respectable third-place finish.

If former Arizona Gov. Mike Huckabee beats former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, third place in Iowa would set McCain up nicely to take down a weakened Romney in New Hampshire five days later.

But even in New Hampshire, immigration is also a troubling issue for McCain.

It is as not as big a deal there as it is in Iowa, but it is still a concern.

A recent Associated Press/Pew Research Center poll found that 17 percent of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire named illegal immigration as the one issue they want candidates to address. It was second to Iraq.

So, McCain's, "I got your message/secure the borders first" line is intended to calm those concerns.

Often, his questioners tell him to his face, they just aren't buying it.

"I just think it's not fair to all the people who came here legally and went through the process and now all the illegals, you're gonna give 'em citizenship?" said a woman in Durham, N.H., after hearing McCain explain his stand. "That's not fair."

On McCain's Straight Talk Express campaign bus in Iowa in the fall, McCain reflected quietly about the issue, saying it was one of the most emotional he had ever seen.

He said he was often asked questions at his town hall meetings by citizens citing alarmist and usually fictitious anecdotes.

Earlier that day, a woman said she had heard that some Mexican-American children in American schools were refusing to put their hands over their hearts during the Pledge of the Allegiance and other Mexican immigrants were flying the Mexican flag above the American flag somewhere.

McCain wondered if these tales that people are citing are coming from talk radio where immigration is a burning issue.

McCain may have yielded to public sentiment in how he parses his words now on the immigration issue.

But he almost always appends a comment similar to what he said at the Republican debate in Florida in November: "We need to sit down as Americans and recognize these are God's children as well."

This issue has dogged McCain for nearly a year, and he just cannot shake it.

His campaign faltered in the spring largely over his stands on immigration and the Iraq War.

His aides say they knew both would be a problem for him, but they just didn't expect immigration to be as big a problem as it turned out to be.

"We knew it would be a minefield, but boy howdy," McCain political strategist John Weaver is quoted saying in the current issue of Esquire. "We might have been overly optimistic that we could tiptoe our way through it."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events