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The Arizona Republic - McCain Holds Ground On Immigration

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The Arizona Republic - McCain Holds Ground On Immigration

By Dan Nowicki

Sen. John McCain held his ground on immigration reform Tuesday despite pummeling from his Republican presidential rivals in a nationally televised debate.

McCain, who helped negotiate the bipartisan compromise now under attack, also declined to side with his nine competitors in insisting that English be made America's official language.

At one point, he even jokingly quipped "Muchas gracias" to moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN when it was his turn to talk about the question.

The debate at Saint Anselm College in this key early primary state marked the first time that the 2008 Republican field has shared the stage since McCain and his Senate allies unveiled the details of their comprehensive immigration-reform proposal, which includes a pathway to legalization for immigrants who already have broken the law to enter the United States. It also requires that steps be taken to tighten the border.

McCain defended the Senate agreement as a sincere, if imperfect, attempt to realistically resolve a serious national security dilemma and chastised opponents for trying to block it.

"And we can make it better, but it's our job to do the hard things, not the easy things," McCain said to applause.

When McCain called on his critics to offer up a better idea, several hands shot up, forcing him to add, "That will get the support of enough people so that we can pass legislation."

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the national Republican frontrunner, dismissed McCain's bill as "a typical Washington mess" and pointedly disputed McCain's contention that it adequately accounts for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Giuliani said the bill doesn't keep track of the immigrants who leave the United States. The lack of a uniform database is the bill's "fatal flaw," he said.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney drew claps when he advocated the enforcement of the immigration laws already on the books and when he criticized a probationary new "Z" visa proposed for illegal immigrants.

"It's simply not fair to say those people get put ahead in the line of all the people who've been waiting legally to come to this country," Romney said.

Other candidates participating in Tuesday's debate were Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas; Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.; and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who is expected to enter the presidential race soon, did not appear.

'English' a theme

The wide-ranging discussion hit on issues such as the Iraq war, and McCain, a passionate war supporter, had a poignant exchange with an audience member whose younger brother was killed in action in 2005.

But the questions consistently returned to immigration-related topics.

As on the immigration-reform bill, McCain stood alone when Blitzer asked if any of the candidates objected to making English the official language of the United States.

McCain cited the sovereignty of Native Americans, such as the Navajos in Arizona, who have their own tribal language.

"It's not a big deal, but Native Americans are important to me in my state," McCain said. "Everybody knows that English has to be learned if anyone ever wants to move up the economic ladder. That is obvious, and part of our legislation, by the way, is a requirement to learn English."

Later in the debate, the English issue came up again.

"English is the language of this country, and you know what, we should not be ashamed of that," Tancredo said.

After saying "Muchas gracias," McCain praised the contributions that Hispanics have made to the military and said their influence "has enriched our culture."

Campaigning in N.H.

Earlier in the day, McCain lamented to reporters that worsening Capitol Hill partisanship has hurt Congress' ability to fix the immigration problem and tackle other key national issues.

"People like you analyze all the reasons why, but it is much more difficult than it was 20 years ago, when I came to the Senate, for people with a clear national objective," McCain said after hosting a town-hall-style event in the rustic New Hampshire community of Gilford. "I mean, clearly, we've got to secure our borders and resolve this issue, to sit down and work together, and it's hard."

Immigration is on the minds of many New Hampshire voters, even among those in the Gilford crowd, which was largely sympathetic to McCain.

Elizabeth Bright, a Gilford independent, says she likes McCain but is skeptical that low-wage illegal workers would be able to pay a $5,000 fine and travel to and from their country of origin before pursuing citizenship.

"I don't think these people can do it," Bright said. "I mean, $5,000 is a lot of money. But I do agree with him that something has to be done."

Republican James Power of Laconia, N.H., is listening to the GOP candidates. He isn't sold on McCain's immigration stance.

"One thing he said - and perhaps there might be some merit to it - is that it's impossible to put the 12 million back where they came from," said Power, who wore an "NRA" cap to McCain's town-hall session. "And that's probably true, but this problem has been going on for well over 30 years, and both parties have ignored it, and has now reached epidemic proportions."

Despite the attention paid to immigration reform, Andrew Smith, a political scientist who directs the University of New Hampshire's polling center, doubts that immigration is a huge issue in the state.

"We found in our last poll in early April that only 5 percent of likely Republican primary voters said it was the most important problem, and only 10 percent said it was one of the top three most important problems," Smith said. "So it's really not that big of deal."

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