Friday, May 24, 2024

McCain's Delicate Immigration Dance

McCain’s recent comments on immigrations suggest that he is trying to please voters on both sides of the issue….

It was the issue of immigration, after all, that almost sunk McCain’s candidacy back in the summer of 2007, when the Senate debated and defeated a comprehensive immigration bill that was dubbed the McCain-Kennedy bill and derided as an “amnesty bill” by opponents. After the defeat, McCain’s public rhetoric on the issue changed significantly, even as his actual position only altered slightly. “I got the message,” he told Republican crowds hundreds of times in the early voting states. “We will secure the borders first.”

But in public comments, McCain often delivered a somewhat mixed message of his own. He continued to favor all the parts of his comprehensive plan — border security, increased employer sanctions for illegal hiring and a path to citizenship for the undocumented — but he mostly refrained from using the word “comprehensive.” Instead, he spoke of a two-stage solution. First, he would secure the borders, a process that would be certified by border state governors. Then he would push for a process to allow the 12 million undocumented immigrants to become full citizens.

More recently, however, McCain has switched back to his earlier rhetoric on the issue. In late May, he took time at an event in California to point out that he had worked with Sen. Ted Kennedy on the immigration bill. “We must enact comprehensive immigration reform, and we must make it a top agenda item,” he said. A couple of weeks later, McCain released the first ads of his general election campaign — for Spanish-language radio in Nevada and New Mexico. This week, he plans to travel to Colombia and Mexico, to burnish his credentials as a leader who understands Latin America. Next month, he will address La Raza at its annual conference in San Diego, along with Democrat Barack Obama.

The reason is not hard to fathom. McCain’s campaign has already announced that it expects to do well among Hispanic voters, especially in key states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. (President Bush won about 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004, though most public polls now show McCain getting just under 30% of the same group, compared with 60% for Obama.) McCain aides openly talk about how the immigration issue that was a burden for their candidate in the primary could become an asset in the general election.

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