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Campaign Issues | A year after comprehensive immigration reform failed, John McCain and Barack Obama are treating the issue with kid gloves

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

One year ago, John McCain's bid for the Republican presidential nomination teetered on the edge of irrelevant. The Arizona senator, initially considered the GOP favorite, had plummeted to single digits in national polls and rumors were swirling of a premature exit before a single primary vote was cast. The reason: comprehensive immigration reform.

More specifically, McCain's work with Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts to concoct a bill granting paths to citizenship for the country's 12 million illegal immigrants had so infuriated the Republican base that some conservatives suggested Hillary Clinton would make a better president. Even amid such rancor and despite the consequence of apparent political suicide, McCain pushed hard for the bill's passage.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama, who at the time trailed Clinton for the Democratic nomination, stepped out of line with the bipartisan coalition backing the proposed immigration reform. The Illinois senator voted five times for amendments that most pundits believed would undermine the bill's fragile support. Kennedy and other Democratic sponsors opposed such amendments to no avail as the legislation collapsed.

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Fast-forward to this summer's general election campaign, where the two underdog candidates have since surged to the forefront of their respective parties and now tell competing narratives of each other's record on the immigration issue. McCain accuses Obama of sabotaging immigration reform: "Senator Obama declined to cast some of those tough votes. He voted for and even sponsored amendments that were intended to kill the legislation, amendments that Senator Kennedy and I voted against."

Obama charges McCain with flip-flopping and political cowardice: "McCain used to buck his party on immigration by fighting for comprehensive reform-and I admired him for it. But when he was running for his party's nomination, he abandoned his courageous stance, and said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote. Well, I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a president who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular."

The reality may lie somewhere in the middle of those polarized accounts. The Obama campaign denies that its candidate ever sought to undermine the immigration reform package up for c-onsideration last year, seeking only to improve it. The campaign has gone so far as to produce a letter from Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, praising Obama for backing the failed legislation. Martinez, a McCain supporter, was among the Republican leadership behind the immigration bill.

Conversely, McCain's stance on immigration represents the antithesis of political cowardice, nearly costing him a chance at the White House. In the wake of the immigration bill's failure, the GOP maverick conceded that he had misjudged the American public's urgency for border security and vowed to solve that issue first before dealing with the illegal population already in the country. But McCain has not backed off pushing an alternative to widespread deportation. His campaign website proposes that "undocumented immigrants learn English, pay back taxes and fines, and pass a citizenship course as part of a path to legal status."

That position remains exceedingly unpopular with conservatives, many of whom label any pathway to citizenship amnesty. Consequently, McCain has moved border security to the forefront of his comments on the campaign trail.

Obama, likewise, has shifted toward more vanilla-flavored rhetoric on the issue, no longer leading with his position that illegal aliens should receive driver's licenses. But in a move that reflects the need to appeal to a different base than McCain, Obama's campaign statements continue to stress "comprehensive immigration reform" and "a pathway to citizenship."

The respective care and ambiguity with which both candidates are addressing the issue reflects its high potential to move voters. Obama and McCain spoke at the National Council of La Raza convention last month, but neither was eager to lay out specifics as to how their immigration policies would impact Hispanics. McCain cannot afford another immigration-induced dip in the polls this close to the election. And Obama is out to avoid providing hooks on which conservatives could hang a far-left label.

What's more, Hispanic voters are divided on the immigration issue. Many believe that porous borders are undermining the economic prosperity of legal immigrants from Mexico. Others resent calls for deportation or strict enforcement due to what they -perceive as a racist backlash.

Apparently cognizant of that reality, the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party made little mention of immigration in their recent launch of a $20 million joint initiative to woo Hispanic voters in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida, all states that President George W. Bush carried twice. At a news conference announcing the initiative, four Hispanic congressmen avoided making immigration the main issue, focusing instead on McCain's similarities with Bush on Iraq, Social Security, and the economy.


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