SIMPSONVILLE, S.C. — John McCain spent months earlier this year arguing that the United States must combine border security efforts with a temporary worker program and an eventual path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants.
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Now, the Republican presidential candidate emphasizes securing the borders first. The rest, he says, is still needed but will have to come later.
"I understand why you would call it a, quote, shift," McCain told reporters Saturday after voters questioned him on his position during back-to-back appearances in this early voting state. "I say it is a lesson learned about what the American people's priorities are. And their priority is to secure the borders."
The shift in approach is likely to draw criticism from McCain's GOP opponents. Immigration has been a flash point in the race, with rivals Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson all seizing on it.
McCain, who has led on the issue in the Senate with Democrat Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, got a wake-up call of sorts in June when Congress again failed to enact a broad immigration proposal that he championed and that split the country.
The measure also exposed deep divisions within the Republican Party, and McCain's high-profile support for it hurt him politically. During debate on the issue as spring turned into summer, the Arizona senator saw his poll numbers in some early primary states slip and his fundraising wane.
Early in the year, McCain told Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina voters the country must take a comprehensive approach -- strengthening the borders as well as creating a temporary worker program and providing millions of illegal immigrants the opportunity to earn citizenship if they meet certain criteria.
Over the past few months, he has stressed border security first and said border-state governors should certify their borders are secure before making other needed immigration changes.
McCain said he listened to what the public was saying when the legislation failed -- and responded accordingly.
"I said, OK. We'll secure the borders, but after we secure the borders, we'll have a temporary worker program, we'll have to address the 12 million people here illegally, and I think the best way is the proposal that we had," McCain said.
"It's not a switch in position. I support the same solution. But we've got to secure the borders first," he added.
Given the public outcry, McCain predicted Congress again would fail if it tried to pass broad reforms without ensuring secure borders.
"You've got to respond to the people," he said. "If your job is to succeed in addressing a major issue then you've got to do what's necessary to succeed. We failed."
The issue often stokes passions at McCain's campaign events in South Carolina and elsewhere.
‘I got the message’
In Simpsonville, S.C., a man asked why McCain had changed his position.
"I haven't. I haven't," the candidate insisted. "I still believe we need to have comprehensive immigration reform, but the lesson is people want the border secure."
"I will secure the border first. That's what Americans want," he said to applause. "They don't want a repeat of 1986 when we said we'd secure the border, gave amnesty to 2 million people and we ended up with insecure borders and more illegal people here," he added.
Earlier, in Irmo, S.C., a women pressed McCain on the issue during a stop at a hot-dog shop.
"This meeting's adjourned," he joked to laughter.
Then, McCain turned serious, and said the issue was one of national security.
"I got the message," he said to clapping. "We will secure the borders first and then go on to other issues."
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