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Immigration fires up GOP debate

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., stands to answer a question from a woman whose brother had died in Iraq at the Republican presidential primary debate Tuesday  in Manchester, N.H.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., stands to answer a question from a woman whose brother had died in Iraq at the Republican presidential primary debate Tuesday in Manchester, N.H. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

MANCHESTER, N.H. – Ten Republican presidential candidates clashed sharply over immigration in their third debate Tuesday night but reserved much of their harshest criticism for President Bush.

The rupture between Bush and his own party’s White House hopefuls on a stage here at Saint Anselm College underscored the foul political climate facing Republicans as they try to retain the White House in 2008. Even a former member of Bush’s Cabinet, Tommy Thompson, took a swipe at the president’s diplomacy skills when asked how he would use him in his administration.

“I certainly would not send him to the United Nations,” said Thompson, a former secretary of Health and Human Services.

Thrashing Bush and fellow Republicans in Congress, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the party “deserved to get beat” in the 2006 elections.

“We’ve lost credibility, the way we bungled Katrina, the fact that there was corruption that was unchecked in Washington, and the fact that there was a feeling that there was not a proper handling of the Iraqi war,” along with “indifference to people pouring over our borders,” he said.

On a more personal note, Arizona Sen. John McCain faulted the administration’s conduct of the Iraq war in responding to a question from a distraught voter, Erin Flanagan, of nearby Bedford, N.H. She described her family as devastated by the 2005 death in Iraq of her younger brother, 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Cleary.

“I’m going to give you a little straight talk,” McCain told her, invoking the slogan of his 2000 White House primary campaign against Bush as he stood up on stage and approached Flanagan. “This war was very badly mismanaged for a long time, and Americans have made great sacrifices, some of which were unnecessary because of this … mismanagement of this conflict.”

But the main source of conflict between the candidates was on the deal that Bush struck this month with a bipartisan group of senators to overhaul immigration laws. McCain, a key negotiator of the compromise, came under fire from several rivals.

“It’s a typical Washington mess,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose pro-immigration stands as New York mayor have caused him political grief with conservatives.

The immigration plan, under debate in the Senate, would offer probationary legal status to many of the nation’s undocumented workers, creating a path to citizenship. It also would increase border security and stiffen penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants, and it would allow hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to enter the country temporarily.

“For us to do nothing is silent and de facto amnesty,” McCain said, calling the troubled immigration system “a serious national security problem.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said visas for undocumented immigrants should be temporary instead of offering a “permanent right to stay in America.”

“That’s simply just not fair,” he said.

Iraq dominated much of the night’s discussion, as it had in the Sunday night debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls. For the most part, the GOP candidates reprised familiar positions.

“We must succeed in this conflict,” McCain said, rejecting any timetable for withdrawal.

“Iraq should not be seen in a vacuum,” Giuliani added, taking a similarly tough line. “Iraq is part of the overall terrorist war against the United States.”

Still, the issue made for some uncomfortable moments.

Romney twice ducked when asked whether he considered the war a mistake, knowing everything he did today. “It’s a hypothetical. I think it’s an unreasonable hypothetical,” Romney said when pressed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the debate moderator “And the answer is, we did what we did; we did the right thing based on what we knew at that time. I think we made mistakes following the … collapse of Saddam’s government.”

Under questioning, McCain conceded he had not read the National Intelligence Estimate prepared in advance of the war, though he said he studied voluminous amounts of information before voting in favor of the U.S. invasion. Sen. Sam Brownback, of Kansas, said he did not “remember the report.”

That brought a tart rejoinder from former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. “You know, I think the people who are in Congress who are responsible for sending this country to war, with the enormous dangers that it has geopolitically and strategically, ought to read at least that kind of material,” Gilmore said.

For the most, part, however, the candidates endorsed the thrust – if not the execution – of Bush’s approach toward Iraq.