The immigration fight in Congress has spilled over onto the presidential campaign trail. John McCain is trying to sell the skeptical GOP base on contentious Senate legislation while Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and other Republican rivals oppose it.
"This immigration reform is an issue of national security," McCain, an Arizona senator, said Wednesday, stressing more secure borders and what he called an urgent need for the United States to know the identities and whereabouts of millions of illegal immigrants.
In White River Junction, Vt., Giuliani derided the legislation as an inadequate "hodgepodge" that "kind of goes in 10 different directions without any central focus." And Romney, who says the bill amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants, said in Tulsa, Okla.: "Let them apply like everybody else in the world."
The differences among the GOP presidential candidates reflect the deep divide in the Republican Party over the issue. Hard-line conservatives advocate tougher policies to secure the country's porous borders and reject the notion of a guest-worker program or an eventual path to citizenship for many of the 12 million immigrants in the country illegally.
In the crowded GOP presidential field, McCain stands virtually alone in his unabashed support for the Senate plan that he co-sponsored and that melds all three of those ideas.
Giuliani, the former New York mayor, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and ex-Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, a likely candidate who is competitive in national popularity polls with the top-tier trio, all oppose the measure.
Among others, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas has struck a cautious tone, saying "there are good aspects of the bill" but others "that can be greatly improved." Former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin both took the hardline, calling the bill amnesty. Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Duncan Hunter of California have long advocated strengthening U.S. borders above all else.
In recent days, McCain has challenged his rivals who oppose the measure to propose their own or stop criticizing the one before the Senate. He held conference calls on Wednesday with reporters in early primary states to defend his position, and he plans to continue his full-fledged effort to sell the measure in the coming days.
His advocacy for so-called "comprehensive immigration reform" doesn't necessarily sit well with conservatives who are critical in the GOP primaries. But McCain has long been a proponent of such an approach, and sticking with his position could bolster his claim to be a leader willing to take unpopular positions for the good of the country despite the personal political implications.
"He's paddling in a different direction than the wave," said Tucker Eskew, a Republican consultant who is unaligned in the race. "Some candidates appear to have changed their positions to get on the wave."
He and other GOP strategists say shifting and murky positions on such a critical issue threaten to undermine Republican candidates' arguments that they â€” not the Democrats â€” are the strong leaders the country needs.
"They're not going to get off not having a clear and concise position," said Christopher LaCivita, another GOP strategist who is neutral in the race. "The Republican base won't allow it."
As mayor, Giuliani billed himself as one of the most "pro-immigrant" politicians in the U.S. and argued against a bill restricting immigration. Now, he's taking a tougher position, saying he's willing to compromise on language allowing legalization for illegal immigrants, but only if the bill requires tamper-proof ID cards and a database of foreigners.
"It has to show when you came in. It also has to show when you leave, which I can't find (in the) hodgepodge that's being put together," Giuliani said.
In 2005, Romney said a Senate bill that had the same broad concepts of the current measure was reasonable. Now, he calls the current measure "a form of amnesty" because it allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely. He criticized the bill's "Z" visa proposal that would allow illegal immigrants to gain citizenship eventually.
"It's quite simple â€” don't make a permanent 'Z' visa," Romney said.
Thompson also appears to have shifted his emphasis. A year ago, he said deporting all illegal immigrants "is not going to happen" and appeared to advocate a comprehensive approach. Thompson now says, "We should scrap this bill and the whole debate until we can convince the American people that we have secured the borders or at least have made great headway."