Sen. John McCain

Sen. John McCain’s Straight Talk Express may have derailed in the New Hampshire debates.

In tonight’s Fox News presidential forum, the GOP hopeful denied charges he favored an immigration-reform plan that offered amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.

“I have never, ever supported amnesty, and never will,” McCain asserted.

During the ABC News presidential debate on Saturday, he angrily denied it and even suggested anybody who says he did support amnesty is a “liar, is lying.”

But in a May 28, 2003, press conference in Tucson, the Arizona senator said Congress should pass a guest-worker program that includes “amnesty” for illegal workers in the U.S.

“I think we can set up a program where amnesty is extended to a certain number of people,” McCain said. “Amnesty has to be an important part, because there are people who have lived in this country for 20, 30 or 40 years, who have raised children here and pay taxes here and are not citizens.”

“He used the word,” noted GOP rival Gov. Mitt Romney during the Fox debate, referring to amnesty.

He also pointed out that McCain co-sponsored a bill to provide so-called Z visas to illegals who “earn the right,” as McCain explained, to stay in the U.S. That includes paying a $5,000 fine and maintaining a job here, McCain said.

McCain added that his bill did not offer citizenship to all illegals, but only to those not charged with other crimes. Criminals would be subject to deportation under his plan.

Conservative commentators such as Michelle Malkin call McCain’s plan “shamnesty,” and accuse him of engaging in political doublespeak now to appeal to the GOP base, which is strongly opposed to special privileges for illegal immigrants.

Malkin knocked ABC News’ debate moderator Charles Gibson for not challenging McCain’s denials.

“Gibson’s superficial knowledge of the immigration issue left him completely unequipped to challenge John McCain’s slippery rhetoric on shamnesty,” she argued on her blog.

McCain is favored to win the New Hampshire primary. Analysts say he owes his recent surge in the polls to the success of the troop surge in Iraq, which the former POW and Vietnam hero clamored for long before President Bush made it policy.

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