MIAMI — The issue of illegal immigration used to set Sen. John McCain apart.
While many in his party called for taller fences and harsher penalties, McCain wanted to give undocumented workers a path to citizenship. When his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination called him soft on border security, McCain flew to Miami last June to say they were "pandering for votes."
Now McCain is the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, and he's still running as a party maverick on fighting global warming and cutting federal spending.
But not immigration.
McCain had to retreat to get this far. Buffeted by criticism as his immigration plan was defeated in Congress last year, McCain emerged from the debate chastened and began emphasizing border security over accommodation.
The harder edge may have satisfied the conservative base and saved McCain's campaign, but it has created a potential pitfall in the must-win Sunshine State.
Florida has 1.2-million Hispanic voters, roughly a third of whom are independents who could decide the race between McCain and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama.
"John McCain showed cowardice, not courage. He betrayed the Hispanic community," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a group that advises Democrats on Hispanic issues.
"I don't think it's going to be very hard for some group out there to spend several million dollars reminding Hispanic voters what he did on this issue."
Florida Democrats point out that Colombian, Mexican and Venezuelan communities are growing, and they intend to tie McCain to a Republican Party that is struggling to keep Hispanic voters.
This year, the number of registered Hispanic Democrats surpassed their GOP counterparts for the first time. And a Quinnipiac University poll this week showed Obama winning among Hispanics, 53 percent to 43 percent.
"There's been some very dangerous rhetoric that has harmed the Republican Party," said Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican who two years ago became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House. "But McCain has never really been part of that, and the vast majority of Hispanics want laws to be enforced."
Fortunately for McCain, the immigration debate is dead in Congress for the year and less prominent on the trail. He said he's always willing to discuss the issue when voters ask, but the campaign never seems to initiate the conversation — at least in public.
In Chicago Wednesday, McCain held a private meeting with 150 Hispanic leaders and told them that as president he would push immigration reform. Some in the room said McCain seemed to be saying one thing to white Republicans and another to Hispanics.
The emotion in Florida is not as clear-cut. Although Hispanics are a big demographic bloc in Florida, the biggest Hispanic groups are not directly affected by the debate. Cubans are granted amnesty, and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
"Hispanics in Florida feel empowered," said Freddy Balsera, a political consultant in Miami and a member of Obama's national finance team. "I just don't see it as an issue in Florida. But McCain will have some explaining to do at the national level."
How does a politician who has built a campaign around his independence explain his new outlook? In an interview in Miami after touring the Everglades, McCain said the reason is simple:
The legislation he championed with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., would have created a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12-million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
It also called for secure borders but "the American people didn't believe us," McCain said. "We have to give Americans that confidence and then move forward with other aspects of comprehensive immigration reform."
The shift was a key to McCain's political survival.
Down in the polls in New Hampshire last summer, McCain was touting two unpopular views. One was the need for more troops in Iraq, the other was the need to help illegal immigrants. He changed his position on one. Though he still talks about treating immigrants humanely, he starts with security.
"I think it's a subtle shift, and it's a shift I had to make as well," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a McCain supporter and ally in the immigration wars. Martinez is the only Cuban-American senator. "There's a political reality here."
But Martinez predicted McCain's "gallant efforts so far" have endeared him to the state's Hispanic voters.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, a Cuban-American who bucked his party leadership to support McCain and Martinez's immigration bill, also said emphasizing border control won't cost him votes among Hispanics.
"The United States has the same right and responsibility as every other country to determine who comes in and who comes out," Diaz-Balart said. "Sen. McCain has always said that. But he continues to say, 'We're going to have to deal with … the ones who are here.' "