by Rick Pearson
KALAMAZOO, Mich.—In an appearance at Kalamazoo Christian High School today, Republican presidential candidate John McCain today urged that votes keep in mind that this is a "Judeo-Christian valued nation" in dealing with the issues of displaced workers and illegal immigrants.
But the Arizona senator told reporters later he was not attempting to reach out to religious conservatives in Michigan, which have become the target base for rival Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister.
On the eve of a Michigan primary that may be critical in providing some guidance to a muddled GOP field, McCain also acknowledged his campaign had sent mailers critical of Mitt Romney to voters in South Carolina, which holds its GOP primary on Saturday.
McCain said the mailers were in response to TV ads and mailings critical of the Arizona senator that were placed by Romney, a Michigan native who is seeking a home-state victory to keep his campaign viable.
Appearing in the high school's gymnasium before several hundred people, McCain hailed labor-management agreements with the automakers that would put the union in charge of health-care cost management. Those pacts, he said, put domestic car manufacturers on a "level playing field" with foreign automakers.
With Michigan's troubled economy taking center stage in the state's primary contest,
"I will herald a new day for Michigan and I will do everything I can to make sure the heartland of America, the state that saved the world during World War II, will again resume its rightful place in our economy in our nation and the world," he said.
McCain also criticized existing federal programs for displaced workers, saying they "don't work" and were "designed for the '50s" when people were laid off but returned to the same job or occupation.
"We can't leave people behind. That's not America," McCain said. "We're a Judeo-Christian valued nation. We're not going to leave these people behind. We're going to give them the kind of education and training to re-enter the workforce."
Later, in answering a question about illegal immigration from the audience, McCain said that of those undocumented immigrants in the country who do not have a criminal record, none "will be rewarded or have any advantage over anyone else because they broke our laws."
Still, McCain said, "There are situations where we have to look at this issue from a humane and compassionate fashion. We are a Judeo-Christian valued nation. These are God's children. But also, our first priority has to be our nation's security and that will be my first and foremost priority."
Asked by reporters about his use of the term "Judeo-Christian" values, McCain denied he was making a special appeal to religious conservatives and contended his comments "have been exactly the same in every town hall meeting."
"I talk about our commitment to those who are less fortunate than we are and our Judeo-Christian values of our nation, whether it be someone who's here as an illegal immigrant or someone who's a laid off worker or a low-income person, and I rely on our Judeo-Christian values," he said.
McCain said he supported new domestic oil-gathering technology but also said he was against drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and would abide by the decisions of coastal states that oppose more deep-sea exploration.
"I think it's a pristine part of the world that I just don't think we ought to or need to go to," McCain said of ANWAR.
When challenged that it will take a long time to move America off its dependence on foreign oil, McCain said a visit to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which he and his two rivals planned to do Monday, will show that " a lot of the technology is there. And then we've got to expand it and manufacture it and get it out to the consumer."
McCain also defended his support of the Iraq surge and said its architect, Gen. David Petraeus, should have been named Time magazine's "man of the year" instead of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I looked into his eyes and saw three letters—a 'K,' a 'G' and a 'B,'" McCain said, referring to the Russian spy agency.
McCain also appeared to take a shot at the Bush White House foreign policy, which rival Huckabee has accused of being "arrogant." The Arizona senator said that if he is elected, he would "start traveling around the world and I'd be very humble."
With the voting yet to begin in Michigan, the GOP candidates also are focused on the South Carolina primary on Saturday and McCain defended his campaign's latest mailing to voters that is critical of the fiscal policies Romney practiced as Massachusetts governor, including raising taxes "by $700 million" and providing taxpayer funding for abortions.
Romney's campaign has complained that the mailer is incorrect and has previously said that taxpayer funding for abortions for the indigent was required by the independent panel set up to operate Massachusetts' massive expansion of health care.
McCain contended the mailer was a "response" piece to what he called the "millions" Romney spent " attacking me" in South Carolina. Asked what attack he was responding to, McCain said, "Which one? Just choose. There's a stack of mailers this high attacking me, literally this high that have flooded South Carolina for the last six months."
Asked by reporters if he wasn't engaging in the same kind of negative campaigning that McCain has criticized Romney for, the Arizona senator said it was an attempt to point out what the former Massachusetts governor's "record is, particularly since he has changed his positions on many issues."