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Immigration Stance Is Costly for McCain
"Among those voters, McCain was running very poor -- 5 percent or less," Coker said.
McCain's top advisers dispute the poll results, noting that no other survey has shown the senator with support that low.
Sensing McCain's vulnerability on the issue, his chief rivals for the Republican nomination have pounced, trying to highlight the senator's position during the GOP debates and in television appearances as the bill reached the Senate floor.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has aired a television ad that proclaims "amnesty is not the answer" and repeatedly links McCain to Kennedy.
At a town hall forum in New Castle, N.H., former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani called the immigration legislation "a great example of why Washington doesn't work."
McCain has responded angrily, accusing his rivals of attacking the immigration bill without a plan of their own. In a speech in Florida, he said: "Pandering for votes on this issue, while offering no solution to the problem, amounts to doing nothing. And doing nothing is silent amnesty."
His aides acknowledge that the issue is taking a toll. Brian Jones, the candidate's communications director, said McCain's efforts to pass an immigration bill, combined with his support for the Iraq war and his long quest to regulate campaign contributions, have made fundraising difficult.
"The fact that he is principled, the fact that he has taken on these tough stances, can at times make fundraising more difficult. It's just a reality," Jones said.
A top fundraiser for the Arizonan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk for the campaign, was more blunt: "It's hurting with the main money guys. Overall, it's definitely a negative."
He added that the constant barrage of criticism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh is making it difficult to raise money from the conservative wing of the party.
"Like it or not, our base listens to that stuff," the fundraiser said. "Whether it's a good bill or a bad bill or an indifferent bill doesn't matter. The folks who are listening to that stuff, it's hard to persuade them with facts."
Mark Salter, one of McCain's top advisers, said his candidate is "not a poser, not a panderer, but a problem-solver."
Salter said members of town hall audiences in Iowa and South Carolina who hear McCain explain his support for the immigration bill often leave convinced of his integrity, if not of his position. Salter said McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, is eager for the fight and will not back down.
"I can campaign on this. I can fight in this corner on this. The best way we can defend this is to put him in front of people," Salter said. "It's a challenge. I think our candidate is up to that challenge. I've seen him do this before."