WASHINGTON – Republican Mitt Romney greeted rival John McCain's entry into the presidential race Thursday with pointed criticism of the Arizona Republican's immigration stance.
"I don't agree with it; I think it's the wrong course," Romney said at the outset of four appearances in the first presidential primary state. "I do not believe amnesty is the right course for the 11 or 12 million illegal immigrant who are living here. It didn't work in the 1980s; it's not going to work in the 2000s either."
McCain, who announced Wednesday night that he will formally become a candidate next month, previously drafted legislation with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., that categorized illegal immigrants and established different criteria for them to remain in the United States legally — a so-called "path to citizenship."
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said he opposes amnesty, favors securing the U.S.-Mexico border with a fence, and wants to institute an employment verification system through high-tech identification cards.
"If we can do that, then we can solve our problem with immigration. The answer is not amnesty," Romney said to hearty applause from an audience of more than 150 gathered at New Hampshire Technical College.
The McCain campaign had no comment on Romney's criticisms.
During a news conference after his town hall meeting, Romney also sought to turn admitted flip-flops from a possible character flaw into a badge of honor. Romney, for example, says he formerly supported abortion rights but now opposes them, a conversion he has previously likened to Ronald Reagan's change of heart on the issue.
"If you had somebody in the private sector who didn't change their mind when they knew they were wrong, you fired them because they were stubborn," said Romney, a former venture capitalist. "I'm happy to admit when I make mistakes and go on. And my experience is that to the voters, the response is overwhelmingly positive: 'We've got a guy who'll admit his mistakes, tell us what he's going to do and he'll honor that.' "
Romney's tour through New Hampshire came after a quick trip across the border from Massachusetts, but that close proximity doesn't necessarily convert into a home-court advantage in the lead 2008 primary state.
The former Massachusetts governor is romancing an electorate that's already shown fondness for McCain and fellow GOP presidential contender Rudy Giuliani. Granite State residents, meanwhile, are increasingly voting Democratic, and the expanding ranks of independents may lean that way as well.
"I think the real problem for him is that both he and John McCain are so busy courting the right wing and trumpeting their support for the war, that won't sell up here," said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College. "What may end up happening is that independent voters gravitate to the Democratic primary. That would leave (Romney and McCain) battling over the hardcore Republicans."
Romney has been campaigning in New Hampshire for the past two years, driving north from the statehouse in Boston to address GOP party events in Manchester, Concord and elsewhere.
Romney also has hosted Republican activists at his vacation home overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H.
Now that he's a full-fledged candidate, Romney is boasting about the support of one of the most prominent Republicans in the state, former national party committeeman Tom Rath. His national field director, Julie Teer, also headed President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign in New Hampshire.
Nonetheless, even Romney's own supporters concede he faces a challenge next year.
A recent WMUR-TV/CNN poll showed Giuliani and McCain, the Arizona senator, in a statistical dead heat. McCain, who stunned Bush by beating him by 18 points in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, had the support of 28 percent of likely New Hampshire voters in the survey while Giuliani had 27 percent.
Romney was a distant third, with 13 percent.
"People assume that just because he's from a neighboring state, he will have a huge advantage. But Giuliani and McCain are household names in this state, and McCain got one out of two votes in the last contested primary up here," said Rich Killion, a New Hampshire political consultant advising Romney.