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."
Commenting on Thompson's potential campaign, former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III said the actor would have to prove his conservative credentials. "We don't know what Fred Thompson is," he said. Former Wisconsin governor Tommy G. Thompson said: "If you're talking about a reliable conservative, it is this Thompson -- Tommy Thompson -- not the other, that's the conservative."
The three GOP front-runners -- Giuliani, McCain and Romney -- each had moments in which they shined, providing voters in New Hampshire and nationwide glimpses of their potential strengths.
Responding to the first question from the audience, McCain rose to address a woman whose brother was killed in Iraq. Looking at her, he used the moment to underline his argument for continuing to fight against insurgents there, saying: "I believe we have a strategy which can succeed, so that the sacrifice of your brother would not be in vain."
Romney offered an eloquent answer to questions about his Mormon faith, and Giuliani effectively used the recent alleged plot to bomb fuel tanks at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to emphasize his experiences after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Iraq is part of the overall terrorist war against the United States," Giuliani said. "The problem the Democrats make is they're in denial."
The candidates said they would not remove the option of using nuclear weapons to prevent Iran from obtaining such weapons, and they also fielded questions about abortion, religion, health care and global warming. All said they agreed with the president's troop increase in Iraq except Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who flatly declared: "It was a mistake to go, so it's a mistake to stay."
But the group joined together in criticizing Bush. The president remains popular among a sizable majority of Republicans, but his overall approval ratings make him a potential liability in a general election.
When the GOP candidates were pressed to say how they might use the president in their administration, Tommy Thompson replied, "Well, I certainly wouldn't send him to the United Nations."
Brownback suggested that he preferred former presidents to stay in the background, and criticized Bill Clinton for "injecting" himself into national policy debates.
Tancredo attacked Bush for what he considers turning his back on conservative principles. Recalling that White House senior adviser Karl Rove once told him not to "darken the doorstep of the White House," Tancredo said, "As president, I would have to tell George Bush exactly what Karl Rove told me."
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee blamed the Bush administration and congressional Republicans for the Democratic takeover of Congress last fall.
"We've lost credibility," he said, "the way we bungled Katrina, the fact that there was corruption that was unchecked in Washington."
Giuliani, McCain and Romney were criticized by Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) for standing now or in the past with Bill Clinton and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on issues such as immigration, gun control and health care. "I think the guy who's got the most influence right here with these three gentlemen is Ted Kennedy," Hunter said.
The candidates all said the military should not be asked to change its policy of barring openly gay service members from active duty, and they all endorsed English as the nation's official language. They also fielded questions about religion, morality and other social issues.
Speaking about being a Mormon, Romney said he shares values common in many faiths, including a belief in God, the Bible and Jesus. "I also believe that there are some pundits out there that are hoping that I'll distance myself from my church so that that'll help me politically. And that's not going to happen," he said.
Giuliani was asked about criticism from a Roman Catholic bishop in Rhode Island about his support of abortion rights.
At that point, lightning crackled outside the debate hall as a thunderstorm passed through and zapped the public address system, providing a humorous moment as the other candidates stepped away from Giuliani in mock fear.
Giuliani, who went to parochial school all his life, joked: "This is a very frightening thing that's happening right now."
Huckabee was asked about an answer he gave in a previous debate in which he said he does not believe in evolution. A former preacher, he offered a thoughtful sermon on the role of God in public life.
"Well, let me be very clear: I believe there is a God," he said. "I believe there's a God who was active in the creation process. Now, how did he do it and when did he do it and how long did he take, I don't honestly know. And I don't think knowing that would make me a better or a worse president."
Tuesday's debate was sponsored by CNN, WMUR-TV and the Manchester Union Leader. CNN's Wolf Blitzer served as moderator.