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By standing alone, McCain finds a chance to stand out

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- When moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the 10 Republican presidential candidates whether any of them opposed making English the "official" language of the United States, Arizona Senator John McCain looked wearily down the line. He saw no hands going up.

McCain motioned to Blitzer with a half-wave and said: "I would like to remind you that we made treaties with Native Americans such as the Navajos in my state, where we respect their sovereignty and they use their native language in their deliberations. It's not a big deal. But Native Americans are important to me in my state."

McCain's weariness was understandable. After laboring for months to establish himself as the candidate of mainstream conservatives, the Arizona senator is now in the position of defending an immigration bill that many conservatives detest. And most of his fellow GOP presidential candidates at last night's debate attacked the bill like hungry dogs tearing into a hunk of sirloin.

The debate revealed that despite McCain's claim to the loyalties of the Republican mainstream, he's still a wild card in the presidential race: the lonely voice against using torture to interrogate terrorism suspects, in favor of a "guest-worker" plan, and expressing qualms about English as the official language.

"It's our job to do the hard things and not the easy things," McCain said last night, in a phrase he's used often enough to make it his unofficial campaign slogan.

McCain's support for the immigration bill probably hurts his chance of winning the GOP nomination. But it may have helped him rediscover the political persona that made him appealing in 2000 -- that of the lonely truth-teller.

The growing feud between McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, in which McCain has accused Romney of pandering to conservatives in his opposition to the immigration bill, shadowed the debate.

Romney avoided any direct confrontation, and cast his opposition in compassionate terms. "It's not fair to the millions of people who've been waiting" to enter the country legally, Romney said of the immigration bill, making his voice soft and plummy.

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a onetime prosecutor who has shown himself to be the most dexterous debater in the GOP field, portrayed the immigration bill as a typical big-government compromise, beloved by senators but too unwieldy to be properly administered.

"I've read the 400 pages," Giuliani quipped at one point, aiming his remarks at McCain.

Representative Duncan Hunter of California was more direct, dubbing the bill "the Bush-McCain-Kennedy plan."

Hunter, one of seven GOP hopefuls who are polling in the single digits but hoping to win the support of uncommitted conservatives, has so far distinguished himself mainly for his hawkishness on Iraq. But last night, he showed a statesmanlike ease in discussing issues like immigration and healthcare. So did former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, whose earlier debate performances had been unsteady, and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore.

The pending arrival of former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson seemed to wake up Hunter, Gilmore, and Tommy Thompson. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback had few memorable moments, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee offered a passionate defense of his creationist views and cracked some jokes.

Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo and Texas Representative Ron Paul stuck to their single-issue passions -- Tancredo decrying bilingualism and Paul opposing the Iraq war.

But none of the seven seemed likely to join McCain, Romney, Guiliani, and now Fred Thompson in the top tier of the polls.

Romney, whose support has been rising in some of the early-voting states, gave a mixed performance. He was effective both in defending his Mormon beliefs and characterizing them in terms that are broadly acceptable to mainstream Christians.

But he began the debate on a perplexing note, refusing to answer the "hypothetical" question of whether invading Iraq was, in retrospect, a mistake -- an answer practically contoured to remind every voter that he's been accused of being inconsistent in his views.

Then again, Romney wasn't pummeled like McCain -- but he also offered no answers except his defense of his religion that had the potential to inspire people.

McCain did -- not only in standing up for the Navajos, but for Hispanics, talking about all the Hispanic names carved into the wall of the Vietnam memorial.

Republicans seem to love McCain's integrity but distrust his views.

So far, they seem to feel the opposite way about Romney.

More on the GOP debate:
Editorial and opinion:
 GLOBE EDITORIAL: The Republican big tent
 DERRICK Z. JACKSON: A debate goes nuclear
 SCOT LEHIGH: Essential qualities
 JOAN VENNOCHI: On principles, McCain
 JEFF JACOBY: A study in contrasts