MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Presidential hopeful John McCain said Friday that Republican critics who accuse him of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants are a minority within his party.
And those critics have offered nothing, McCain said, to replace the immigration plan proposed by president Bush that calls for opening a potential path to citizenship for the 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
"There's a part of the Republican base that feels very emotional and very strongly about this issue. I understand that," McCain said during a brief stop in Memphis. "But the majority of Republicans and majority of the American people support this approach."
The Arizona senator described himself as the only Republican seeking the presidency who supports the plan, and he called on the others to come up with something better.
"What's your proposal?" he said. "No one believes that enforcing the existing laws is the answer."
The immigration bill worked out by the White House with Republican and Democratic members of Congress is a domestic priority for the president.
Supporters say it would tighten border security, provide for a temporary-worker program and open the way to eventual citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
Critics contend it would grant amnesty to immigration lawbreakers.
After breakfast at a private club in Memphis that caters to business executives, McCain said his supporters and campaign donors understand the need for major changes in immigration laws.
"They say they're for it because they understand the need for temporary workers," McCain said after the meeting, which was closed to the news media.
"They understand the need to secure our borders." McCain made a similar stop Thursday in Jackson, Miss., and was scheduled for campaign appearances Saturday in Iowa.
He is scheduled to deliver a speech on immigration Monday in Miami.
McCain said he hoped to "raise the level of dialogue" on the immigration bill.
"I don't impugn the patriotism of people who disagree with me and the president on this issue," he said. "And I wish we could have a more respectful dialogue."