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Will John McCain's Immigration Flip-Flopping Come Back to Bite Him?

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In a campaign ad released this past May, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) walks along Arizona’s border fence, grimacing. “Drug and human smuggling,” he says to the sheriff walking alongside him. “Home invasions. Murder.” As the two men trudge up a rocky hill, McCain promises to “complete the danged fence.” The sheriff, in turn, tells McCain, “You’re one of us.”

The ad, which garnered quite a bit of media attention, represented a substantial reversal in policy priorities for McCain: Just four years beforehand, he voted yes on establishing a guest worker program; voted yes on giving guest workers a path to citizenship; and voted yes on granting illegal immigrants access to Social Security -- all within the span of one week. In 1998, he voted to allow more foreign workers into the US to perform farm work, then voted to increase assistance programs for immigrants – both legal and illegal – once they arrived on US soil.

He was, in short, an unexpected “maverick” within his party when it came to immigration law -- an unabashed defender of positions that he acknowledged would “[provoke] the outspoken opposition of many conservatives.”

That was then.

So why the sudden change? Why the hard-line ad campaign and the calls for increased militarization of the border? For one thing, the man’s got an election to win and an overwhelmingly anti-immigrant constituency to appease. By throwing his support behind Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, drawing up a 10-point "border security plan" and changing his position on the Mexico/Arizona fence, McCain has put himself in a good position to beat out J.D. Hayworth for Arizona’s Senate seat. According to a story in today’s New York Times, he’s 15-21 points ahead -- pretty much a runaway margin.

Still, McCain’s success exploiting far-right fears does raise some questions about what shape his policies will take once the confetti is swept up. While remaining credible in Arizona might mean keeping a hard-nosed approach on immigration, it also means taking flak on a national scale from critics of SB 1070. McCain may be popular on his home turf, but when you’re a U.S. Senator, that’s only part of the ball game. The Times sums it up succinctly:

The question now is whether Mr. McCain’s sharp shift to the right during the campaign -- the onetime maverick declared at one point that he no longer wanted anything to do with that label -- will ultimately come back to haunt him and perhaps tarnish his legacy as a pragmatist willing to reach across the aisle.

A good question indeed.