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McCain Sets Self Apart in Debate

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By Dan Balz and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H., June 5 -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona found himself isolated Tuesday night as he staunchly defended controversial immigration legislation against a barrage of criticism from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, who argued that the bill is deeply flawed and should not be approved by Congress.

The Senate will begin voting on Wednesday on the fragile compromise, which has the support of President Bush but is opposed by a majority of Republicans and has become a flash point in the contest for the GOP nomination.

"The problem with this immigration plan is it has no real unifying purpose," former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said. "It's a typical Washington mess. It's everybody compromises. . . . And when you look at these compromises, it is quite possible it will make things worse."

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney joined in attacking the bipartisan bill McCain helped write.

"Every illegal alien, almost every one, under this bill, gets to stay here," he said. "That's not fair to the millions and millions of people around the world that would love to come here, join with family members, bring skill and education that we need."

McCain stood his ground as Giuliani, Romney and virtually all the other candidates criticized the bill. Calling immigration reform a national security issue, McCain said that inaction represents "de facto amnesty" for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Challenging his rivals to offer a better solution that could pass Congress, McCain defended the bill as the best compromise on an issue that has deeply divided the Republican Party. "It's our job to do the hard things," he said, "not the easy things."

At one point, Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) called for suspending most legal immigration, which drew rebukes from many on stage. McCain called the idea "beyond my realm of thinking" and said that the United States must remain a beacon for the rest of the world. "And the lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door is still the ideal and the dream," he added.

The third gathering of 2008 Republican presidential candidates, this time at Saint Anselm College here, did not produce the flashes of anger that characterized the second meeting two weeks ago. Instead, the 10 men offered criticisms that rarely seemed like personal attacks, except when targeted at Democrats -- as when McCain pointedly chided Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the Democratic front-runner, for calling Iraq "Mr. Bush's war."

Actor and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), who is exploring a presidential bid, did not participate in the debate but used the moment to launch his campaign Web site, http://www.imwithfred.com.

Immediately after the debate, he appeared on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes." Thompson said he would support a preemptive strike against Iran to knock out its nuclear capability and accused Democratic candidates of speaking in decade-old "cliches" about the challenges facing the country.

Asked about his previous statements that he had never hungered to run for president, Thompson said, "More and more, I wish that I had the opportunity to do the things that only a president can do."


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