PHOENIX — Republican Sen. John McCain, who once championed a path to citizenship for the nation's roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants, is now pushing for a crackdown on illegals amid the toughest re-election fight of his career.
McCain's hardline stance on immigration comes in the face of a credible GOP primary challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, and the possibility that the party's 2008 presidential nominee could lose his Senate seat because many conservatives don't consider him one of their own.
Engaged in a fierce contest with the tea party-backed Hayworth, McCain has moved to the right on numerous issues, including gay rights and climate change, and disavowed his long-standing maverick label.
The killing of an Arizona rancher last month stoked conservatives' emphasis on fighting illegal immigration. The state Legislature on Monday sent Republican Gov. Jan Brewer one of the toughest immigration laws in the country; Brewer hasn't said what she will do. The turn of events has moved immigration to the forefront for voters — and Hayworth has used the issue as a cudgel against McCain.
On March 27, rancher Rob Krentz, 58, was found dead on his all-terrain vehicle after making a garbled call about encountering someone apparently needing help. Authorities say they believe Krentz was shot by an illegal border-crosser, possibly someone working for a smuggling cartel, although they haven't made arrests in the case.
Hayworth has assailed McCain's work on a 2005 bill that included providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a provision Hayworth calls amnesty. McCain co-sponsored the bill with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and argued in 2007 when the effort failed that he wouldn't give up because "the American people will not settle for the status quo — de facto amnesty and broken borders."
Facing pressure from conservatives in his own party, he began backing off his support of an immigration overhaul during his presidential primary campaign. Early in 2008, McCain privately told congressional Republicans that he had been hurt politically by his push for immigration reform and had learned that sealing the border should be a top priority.
In his bid for a fifth term, the 73-year-old lawmaker has made clear that he understands the political reality.
McCain was on the air this week to pitch a tough crackdown on illegal immigration, renewing a call to deploy 3,000 National Guard troops to the Arizona border, the busiest stretch for illegal border crossings. He also wants 3,000 additional Customs and Border Protection agents, new fences and increased aerial surveillance.
2010 primaries to watchThe plan was released with fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, but it was McCain who went on Fox News Channel to sell it.
The plan was similar to a proposal released a week earlier by Arizona ranchers who went to the state Capitol after Krentz's death.
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Hayworth called the senators' plan an "election-year gimmick." McCain's campaign spokesman, Brian Rogers, accused Hayworth of using the rancher's death "to exploit a family's tragedy to score cheap political points."
Hayworth also said McCain's actions are too little, too late.
"Had McCain supported my efforts in 2005 to secure the U.S. border, rather than stubbornly supporting amnesty, we would not be trying to apply quick fixes today," Hayworth said.
McCain argued that he's been working for years on securing the border and says he's worked directly with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on the issue.
"I have a long record of legislative efforts as well as other efforts to try and get the border secured," he said.
Hayworth has pressured McCain to support the bill passed by the Legislature. It makes it a crime to be in the state illegally, requires police to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally and makes it illegal to hire undocumented immigrants for day labor or knowingly transport them.
Arizona has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants.
Many argue the bill promotes racial profiling and will lead to civil rights abuses. The head of the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, condemned the legislation, calling it mean-spirited and wondering whether Arizonans would revert to "German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques" of turning people into authorities based on suspicions.
McCain on Monday called the bill "a good tool" for law enforcement that "needs to be used." But his office later clarified that his statements didn't amount to an endorsement.
Discussing the bill Tuesday with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, McCain said he would be "very sorry" if the bill results in racial profiling. But he also argued that "homes and property are being violated" and "cars with illegals in (them) are intentionally causing accidents on the freeway."
McCain added, "Look, our border's not secured, our citizens are not safe."
The flip-flops on the thorny issue of immigration reflect McCain's struggle to take a tougher stance without alienating moderates in his party.
Illegal immigration has also reverberated in other Arizona races.
Republicans hoping to unseat Gov. Brewer swiftly endorsed the ranchers' border plan. State Treasurer Dean Martin said Brewer "has done little to secure our border, but simply point the finger at Washington." Brewer hasn't said whether she will sign the bill, veto it or just let it become law.
Like McCain, Brewer is locked in a tough GOP primary to keep her job. She assumed the office more than a year ago when Democrat Janet Napolitano resigned to become President Barack Obama's homeland security secretary.
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