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McCain takes shot at Romney on immigration

Story Highlights

• John McCain accuses Mitt Romney of changing positions on immigration
• GOP presidential hopeful needles his rival Romney over "varmint" remark
• Romney campaign says McCain having trouble defending immigration bill
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Republican presidential hopeful John McCain taunted rival Mitt Romney on immigration Monday, saying the former Massachusetts governor should "get out his small-varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn."

Romney's campaign responded that McCain "is having a very difficult time" defending his support of a sweeping immigration bill, which Romney opposes.

McCain is a leading backer of the bill, which critics have denounced as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. (Listen to McCain mock Romney's position on immigration Video)

On Monday afternoon, McCain made fun of Romney's evolving positions on other issues when asked about the immigration controversy during a conference call with bloggers.

"In the case of Gov. Romney, you know, maybe I should wait a couple of weeks and see if it changes, because it's changed in less than a year from his position before," McCain said. "And maybe his solution will be to get out his small-varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn. I don't know."

The jab squeezed in references to two past controversies: Romney's backtrack on an April comment that he'd "been a hunter pretty much all my life" -- he later said he had shot "varmints," such as rabbits, as a child; and a 2006 report in The Boston Globe that a landscaping firm Romney hired to maintain his home for years had hired illegal immigrants.

McCain repeated the line to reporters Monday evening after a speech to state lawmakers in Oklahoma.

Romney has been criticized for previous support of abortion rights, which he now says he opposes, and for his support of gun control during his four years as Massachusetts governor.

But his spokesman, Kevin Madden, said that Romney "has been very clear that he opposes this immigration agreement, which clearly falls short of the American public's expectations."

"It seems that the candidate who brokered this flawed plan is having a very difficult time coming to terms with the political fallout that has ensued and cannot even muster up a substantive argument in favor of it," Madden said.

McCain's support for the immigration bill already has led to a sharp exchange last week between the senator from Arizona and his Texas GOP colleague, Sen. John Cornyn. (Watch the fallout over McCain's reported exchange with Cornyn Video)

Cornyn was speaking outside the Senate chamber with other senators and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about concerns that the proposed legislation could lead to judicial appeals that would tie up the courts, as first reported Friday on Washingtonpost.com.

Another senator present called that concern "chicken----."

Sources contradict each other on which senator used the word. Cornyn became angry and said that while he had been present during the meetings held over the past few months by the bipartisan working group that crafted the bill, McCain had appeared only at the last minute.

Sources said that comment elicited a "F--- you!" from the gentleman from Arizona.

McCain admitted after the 2000 Republican primary campaign that his temper might have hurt his chances to be president.

"My anger did not help my campaign," he said seven years ago. "People don't like angry candidates very much."

Republican strategist Ed Rollins said Tuesday that incidents such as these diminish McCain's appeal to voters who don't know him.

"The bottom line is, I've known John for a long time and I admire him greatly," Rollins said. "But the critical thing is people who don't know him watch him and they don't know if he has the right temper to be president of the United States. Every time he makes a mistake in the campaign, this clip and every clip will be repeated so it's a whole reel of him going out of control.

"When the pressure gets on, he tends to get his back up a little bit," Rollins said. "He's 70 years old. People don't want a cantankerous president."

CNN's Lauren Kornreich contributed to this report.

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