By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is not wavering on immigration. This week, he continued to stand firm with President Bush in seeking a Senate compromise on the issue in the face of intense opposition from core activists in the Republican Party.
His advisers refer to such a stance as one of the signatures of his political career: principled stands on tough issues.
And even they concede that, this time, it's costing him dearly.
"From a political perspective, having a candidate that takes on all the tough issues is not always the most politically expedient thing to do," said David Roederer, the chairman of McCain's campaign in Iowa. Asked what he would like to see happen on immigration, Roederer laughed and said: "Wind the clock back and forget that this issue ever came up?"
That sentiment is common among many of McCain's most ardent supporters, who admire his guts but worry about the political toll the debate is taking on their candidate.
Once seen as the inevitable Republican presidential front-runner, McCain is sinking in the polls, particularly in the all-important early-primary states. On conservative talk radio, he is lumped together with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and derided endlessly. His stance on immigration is making life ever more difficult for his fundraisers. He is expected to again lag behind rivals in money raised when the quarter ends on Saturday.
McCain's staff has sought to make a virtue of what appears to be an anchor on his political fortunes. In an e-mail to supporters on Monday, campaign manager Terry Nelson said that McCain "is running for president not to do what is easy. He is running to do the hard but necessary things to protect our country from harm and to fix the challenges that we face as a nation now, not later."
The next day, McCain canceled some critical fundraising events to participate in a key vote on the bill. And he is isolated on the front lines of the country's debate over illegal immigration -- alone among Republican presidential candidates, the rest of whom oppose the overhaul of the nation's border-control laws.
It is a particularly difficult predicament for a Republican candidate looking for votes in Iowa and South Carolina, two states with early presidential contests next year. In both states, anger over the bill -- and McCain's backing of it -- runs deep.
"Iowa being quite conservative, very conservative, I think there are some who just want to get rid of [illegal immigrants], send them back, put up a double wall," said Nelson P. Crabb, the mayor of Clear Lake and a McCain supporter. "That's impractical. But I think the general feeling of people here in Iowa is 'Gee, they shouldn't be here.' "
In three recent Mason-Dixon polls in Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada, McCain was mired in fourth place with less than 10 percent of the vote among likely Republican voters. Brad Coker, who runs Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, said McCain's position on immigration is a key to his slump.
"With the grass-roots party voters, the people who participate in primaries and caucuses, they are not really thrilled with any kind of amnesty," Coker said, referring to the conservatives' favored description of the reform bill. Coker said 40 percent of GOP voters ranked immigration as their No. 1 or No. 2 issue.
"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."