CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Republican presidential hopefuls John McCain and Mitt Romney clashed on Monday over the immigration bill, with McCain embracing the measure as a practical solution and Romney dismissing it as unworkable.
Speaking in politically crucial Florida, with its heavy concentration of Cuban and Haitian immigrants, McCain argued that while the bill is imperfect, it is an attempt to secure U.S. borders, help the economy and identify those who have entered the nation illegally.
The four-term Arizona senator chided rivals who are trying to score points on the issue. McCain never mentioned any names but his target was obvious _ Romney.
"To want the office so badly that you would intentionally make our country's problems worse might prove you can read a poll or take a cheap shot, but it hardly demonstrates presidential leadership," McCain told members of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
Romney answered back.
"The immigration approach proposed by Senators McCain and Kennedy falls short of a workable solution to an important problem," the former Massachusetts governor said in a statement. Romney said he respected McCain, but his opposition was based on a "principled disagreement about policies and priorities related to enforcement of our immigration laws."
The immigration measure would tighten security on the Mexican border while allowing some of the 12 million illegal immigrants a chance to stay in the United States and eventually become citizens.
President Bush has spoken out in favor of the bipartisan bill. Romney did not mention the president, instead describing the immigration approach of McCain and liberal icon Kennedy.
McCain said Bush understands the political implications.
"The president knows. He spent eight years as governor of Texas," McCain told The Associated Press after his speech. "The Republican Party must address this issue, if, in my part of the country, we expect to attract Hispanic voters."
McCain stands alone among the major candidates in supporting the bill. He has criticized Romney for opposing the measure based on provisions that would provide a path to legalization.
"I will never conduct my campaign in such a way that it makes our country's most difficult challenges harder to solve. I hope you will hold all candidates to that same standard. Pandering for votes on this issue, while offering no solution to the problem, amounts to doing nothing. And doing nothing is silent amnesty," McCain said to loud applause.
Another GOP rival, former New York city Mayor Rudy Giuliani, also opposes the bill, but has said he is willing to compromise on how to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States as long as he is satisfied all security issues are addressed.
Romney has not offered a detailed plan on how he would handle illegal immigrants, but he said recently a priority would be to deport criminals and remove illegal immigrants from government assistance programs.
Romney's response to the bill has varied with his audience. Most of his criticism has focused on the so-called Z-visa, a document proposed for registering the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the country.
Last month in South Carolina, home to the type of social conservatives Romney is courting, he said, "I think we should not call it the 'Z' visa; we should call it the 'A' visa, because it's amnesty and that's what it stands for."
Yet a week later in Florida, he said, "There are some who get involved in whether it is technically amnesty or not and I'm not really trying to define what is technically amnesty. I'll let the lawyers do that."
Despite his amnesty complaints, Romney said he would not favor rounding up the illegal immigrants already in the country. Rather, he supports them self-reporting to immigration authorities.
McCain chose a supportive crowd to deliver his 25-minute address Monday. Many of the Miami area's business leaders are immigrants or children of immigrants. He was given an extended ovation before beginning his speech and his remarks were interrupted several times by applause.
"Florida is a living testament to the benefits of immigration, a great and prosperous state built in large part by immigrants who came here to escape tyranny and despair," he said.