A blunt cliché best captures John McCain's rebuttal to persistent attacks from Mitt Romney over his immigration plan: Put up or shut up.
In his appeals to conservative voters, Romney has made the Arizona senator's work on immigration one of his favorite targets. When McCain and other senators unveiled the latest reform bill two weeks ago, Romney called it the "wrong approach" and immediately launched a television ad slamming "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
But while Romney has been aggressive with his barbs, he has offered no specific solutions of his own to the immigration crisis. With McCain and his surrogates pushing the issue hard, Romney is facing increasing questions about what he would do about the problem.
Romney, in outlining his immigration position, advocates three broad principles. He says he wants to secure the borders, establish a fraud-proof employee verification system, and offer no special residency or citizenship privileges to the estimated 12 million immi grants in the United States illegally. He objects to a provision in the current bill that would create a special "Z visa" allowing undocumented workers to remain in the United States and work legally.
But asked last week how he would change the bill, Romney demurred. "I'm not, here, going to describe language of a piece of legislation," he told reporters in Lakeland, Fla. "I'm not a legislator, at least not currently, so I'm not going to give you legislative language."
When a Lakeland Ledger reporter asked him about immigration in an interview, Romney said he was "not really trying to define what is technically amnesty." He added, "I'll let the lawyers do that." However, just days before in South Carolina, Romney said that McCain's proposed "Z visa" should be called an "A visa" -- "because it's amnesty and that's what it stands for."
Romney's critics and presidential rivals have seized on such comments, accusing him of throwing bombs but being unwilling to do the hard work of crafting a viable alternative.
"Somebody needs to tell Romney that if he's president he'll have to propose legislation to deal with these issues, work with Congress on getting it passed, or [veto] whatever comes out of Congress," one blogger wrote on the site Ankle Biting Pundits. "As president you don't get to pass the buck or leave the specifics to others."
McCain, whose championing of immigration reform has hampered his courtship of conservatives, has also made that point in conference calls with the media and in a series of radio and TV interviews. And in a major speech on immigration Monday in South Florida, McCain will have tough words for critics such as Romney who haven't proposed anything of their own, according to advisers.
"He will say that's clearly not leadership, and by just taking shots at this . . . you're making the country's hardest problems harder to solve," said one senior McCain adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the campaign had not yet finalized McCain's remarks.
If the first two GOP presidential debates are any indication, immigration will also be a dominant issue in Tuesday night's Republican debate in New Hampshire.
Asked if Romney is going to put out a detailed immigration plan, his spokesman, Kevin Madden, said Romney "has made his immigration priorities clear: Secure the borders, implement an employee verification program with a tamper-proof biometric card, and no special pathway towards citizenship for those who broke immigration laws."
Madden would not say specifically whether Romney would veto the Senate bill if he were president but said Romney "does not support the bill in its current form."
The other leading Republican candidate, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, has not put out an immigration plan, either, though he has not been critical of McCain's work on the issue.
Immigration is not the only thing creating friction between Romney and McCain, but it's the one that has brought their political feud to the fore. McCain has criticized Romney not just for failing to put out a specific plan, but for shifting position on the issue. As recently as 2005, Romney was describing proposals by McCain and others as "reasonable" and "quite different" from amnesty.
Romney has made his opposition to illegal immigration front and center in his campaign. In March, he traveled to Phoenix to celebrate the endorsement of Joe Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff famous for rounding up immigrants in desert tents. He also touts actions he took as Massachusetts governor, such as vetoing a bill proposing in-state tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants, and implementing an agreement with the federal government under which State Police could enforce federal immigration laws.
The Globe reported last year that the state, under Romney, used contractors that relied heavily on illegal immigrants, and that a landscaping company working at Romney's Belmont home employed illegal immigrants.
Romney's hard line on immigration is well received in some states, but it is presenting complications for him in Florida, an early primary state where many political leaders support the immigration overhaul efforts of McCain and President Bush, including Governor Charlie Crist, former governor Jeb Bush, and Senator Mel Martinez, who leads the Republican National Committee.
Jeb Bush co-wrote a column in yesterday's Wall Street Journal saying the Senate bill, while imperfect, is worth supporting for the country's security and its economy, and that Republicans would be wise not to alienate Hispanic voters. President Bush said earlier this week that critics calling the Senate bill amnesty were engaging in "empty political rhetoric" aimed at scaring the public.
In Iowa, however, where Republicans cast the first votes of the primary season, some say Romney is hitting the right notes on immigration and doesn't need to have a more detailed plan at this point. Romney supporter Brian Kennedy, an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration who ran for Congress in eastern Iowa last year, said many Iowans care first and foremost about stanching the flow of immigrants across the border. Only when that happens, Kennedy said, will they focus on those already here.
"It's that type of mindset that dominates out here," he said.
Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said that as long as McCain's Senate bill is in play, Romney can score points merely by opposing it.
"The easy thing for a Republican candidate right now is to be against it," Squire said. "At this point, you don't have to speculate about possible alternatives."
Unfortunately for McCain, it's a lot easier to be on the sidelines than in the game, Squire said. "For McCain, this is the difference between being a senator and a presidential candidate. It's a lot more fun being a presidential candidate."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com