McCain may soften immigration stance if he wins next week’s primary

Sen. John McCain was once one of the major Republican supporters of immigration reform, arguing for comprehensive legislation as recently as 2008. Faced with accusations of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants, McCain has moved to a much tougher immigration stance during his Republican primary.

But after the primary vote next Tuesday, will the old McCain come back?

John McCain in Denver in 2008. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

The winner of the GOP primary in Arizona is likely to have a straight shot to the Senate seat, NPR reported Thursday. But first McCain must beat opponent J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman who has attacked McCain for his previous support of immigration reform.

McCain now focuses almost exclusively on border security measures, writing a 10-point border security plan with fellow Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl he said he will continue to push when the Senate returns from recess.

Simple political necessity explains McCain’s shift rightward during the primary, experts told NPR:

“In fairness to the senator,” says longtime Arizona pollster and political analyst Bruce Merrill, “one can look at it two ways. You can question his values and ethics, and say he’s pandering to the right. Or you can look at it as simply understanding the game you have to play to get elected.” Merrill, of Arizona State University, was the pollster for McCain’s 1982 House campaign.

Arizona’s Senate seat will probably go to a Republican; the Democratic candidates have a lower profile and fewer registered voters. This means that McCain could relax some of his campaign-mode messages on immigration.

That’s certainly what Democrats hope will happen. Democrats can’t pass immigration legislation — even the less controversial DREAM Act — without Republican support. In Colorado, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat, says voters are ready for comprehensive immigration reform this session, which the DREAM Act can be a part of.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), at least, seems to think there is a possibility of McCain shifting back to the center after his primary: “I think once we get past the Arizona GOP primary that sparked the recent anti-immigration reform eruption, we will have a chance of getting some of the Republicans in the Senate to also come forward and work with Democrats to get a bill passed,” Gutierrez said in July.

If McCain does return to more moderate views on immigration, the path of fellow Republican Meg Whitman could serve as an example. Though she has a less complicated past on immigration, Whitman, who is running for California governor, shifted from claiming to be “tough as nails” on immigration during her primary to splitting with her party on Arizona’s immigration law. Part of her shift could be a play for Latino voters — Whitman began running Spanish-language ads and other outreach to Latinos after her primary.

McCain could do the same — Latinos make up about 30 percent of Arizona’s population. But Whitman also shows some of the pitfalls to shifting viewpoints on immigration: some members of the GOP are concerned she is not conservative enough, the Los Angeles Times reported today:

“I wish she would keep her promises that she made in the primary,” said Celeste H. Greig, president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative faction that endorsed Whitman’s and Fiorina’s rivals in the primary campaign.

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Elise Foley

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