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On immigration: McCain put political career in peril; Obama overstates leadership role.

UPDATE: The Obama team sent over a PDF of a letter from Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fl.) thanking Obama for his work on immigration legislation that eventually stalled. This is to rebut the assertion from McCain backer Martinez on Friday and in the column, from Sen. Lindsey Graham that Obama was not around to help when it mattered. http://www.suntimes.com/images/cds/MP3/Martinezletter.pdf END UPDATE

WASHINGTON — No matter if you areor are not voting for presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), he deserves credit for trying to forge a bipartisan deal on immigration in 2005 and 2006 at great personal political risk, a situation unfamiliar to rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)

McCain put his comeback presidential bid in peril because of his leadership role with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to find a path for millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S.

The Kennedy-McCain legislation stalled in 2006, because the hardline pro- and anti-immigration forces preferred the status quo to a compromise. Another try in 2007 in a bill backed by McCain and Obama also failed.

McCain and Obama, wooing Hispanic voters, each has madeclear in recent appearances before the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and the League of United Latino American Citizens a few days ago that he would make immigration reform and legalizing the status of millions of illegal immigrants a priority if elected president. I expect each to send the same message at the upcoming National Council of La Raza conference in San Diego, where Obama speaks Sunday and McCain on Monday.

In the meantime, Obama on the campaign trail inflates his leadership role casting himself as someone who could figure out how to get something done. Obama did not absolutely stand out in any way, said Margaret Sands Orchowski, the author of Immigration and the American Dream: Battling the Political Hype and Hysteria, and a close follower of the legislation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a McCain ally and a key player on immigration, said Obama was around for only a handful of meetings and helped destroy a 2007 compromise when he voted for making guest worker visa programs temporary. A permanent guest worker program was to be a trade for a legalization program to cover many illegal immigrants.

When it came time to putting that bill together, he was more of a problem than he was a help. And when it came time to try to get the bill passed, he, in my opinion, broke the agreement we had. He was in the photo op, but he could not execute the hard part of the deal, Graham said, Graham said.

An Obama Senate staffer who did not want his name used disputed whether the sunset provision in the guest worker program killed the bill and said that either Obama or his top immigration staffer were in strategy sessions and that Kennedy, in his speech endorsing Obama vouched for Obamas work on immigration.

In praising Obama for his work on immigration, Kennedy said of Obama, “There is the tireless skill of a senator who was there in the early mornings to help us hammer out a needed compromise on immigration reform, who always saw a way to protect national security and the dignity of people who did not have a vote. For them, he was a voice for justice, a voice for justice. For them, he was a voice for justice.”

On Thursday in Fairfax, Va., Obama was asked about his qualifications to understand Latino needs. After noting his work as a community organizer and state senator he spoke of McCain. John McCain bucked much of his party and worked with Ted Kennedy, worked with me and others to help shape comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the Senate. And I thought that was courageous of him. Obama, in a sly verbal stroke, made himself an equal on immigration leadership to Kennedy and demoted McCain to a helper.

McCainafter the two failed attempts to pass a comprehensive bill now wants to satisfy conservatives by first passing a border security and enforcement measure.

Obama said that approach means McCain cant give you confidence that he is going to be serious about that issue. I will be.

McCain is not saying enforcement only. He is saying enforcement first.