He even enlisted local immigration hard-liners like Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu to make the case. “Senator, you’re one of us,” Babeu said to McCain in a campaign ad about building a fence along the Mexican border.

But after Latino voters ditched Romney and the Republican Party at the polls in November, and with President Barack Obama and Democrats pushing immigration reform, McCain is one of a bipartisan group of eight senators talking behind closed doors on an immigration deal that could give the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants more leeway than many conservative hard-liners are ready to accept.

If the coalition holds, McCain could emerge as a chief ally to Obama, a stark reversal from the past four years, when McCain was a thorn in the administration’s side on a host of issues, including immigration and defense.

“I’ve been trying for a long time, and I think maybe now that the climate is such that we can be successful,” McCain told POLITICO.