John McCain has a tough tightwire act to perform in this year’s election He has to find ways to reach out to conservatives while maintaining his credentials as an independent thinker if he wants to win the Presidency in a year which history indicates would normally produce a party change in the White House. The risk for McCain is in going too far to the center to keep conservative activists in the fold — and CNN’s Peter Hamby reports that McCain may have stuck his toe out over the edge on the one issue guaranteed to enrage the Right:

John McCain the presidential candidate suddenly sounded like the John McCain of 2005 on Monday, touting two pet issues that have generated considerable heartache among grassroots conservatives: the “Gang of 14” compromise and comprehensive immigration reform.

McCain brought up the “Gang of 14” saga unprompted at a town hall here, in advance of a major speech on judicial appointments he is set to deliver tomorrow in Winston-Salem. …

The Arizona senator also seemed to move past his usual “secure the borders first” mantra in favor of calling for, as he put it, “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Last summer, McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy led the charge on an immigration reform package that aroused the ire of conservatives and ultimately threatened to undermine McCain’s then-frontrunning presidential bid. (McCain also supported immigration reform bills in 2005 and 2006.)

“Unless we enact comprehensive immigration reform I don’t think you can take it piecemeal,” he explained Monday, answering a question about providing visas for skilled workers.

McCain has an argument with the Gang of 14, although at the time I bitterly opposed it. It uncorked the judicial confirmation process, which had ground to a halt by 2005, and de-escalated the standoff to the point where George Bush got two Supreme Court justices confirmed to the bench. The Gang saved the judicial filibuster, which I still believe to be illegitimate, but some Republicans might find it handy in a Barack Obama presidency.

However, if McCain thinks he can start talking about comprehensive immigration reform outside the context of securing the borders first, he is very much mistaken. Conservative activists have watched McCain carefully for that very misstep, and if they catch him in it, all of the outreach he has done to the Right will vanish in an instant. Addressing the open-borders activist group National Council of La Raza reinforces the queasy feeling conservatives have about the commitment McCain has to securing the border at all, let alone as the vital beginning of any look at immigration policy.

The Hill, meanwhile, reports that McCain wants to build enthusiasm among conservatives with a focus on judicial nominations in the upcoming term, when at least two openings are expected to arise:

Seeking to overcome the right’s persistent mistrust, McCain will speak Tuesday on the importance of nominating conservative jurists to the federal courts, including the Supreme Court.

Along with abortion, this is one of the few areas where the candidate agrees with leading social conservatives.

These leaders are coalescing around the idea that the GOP should pledge in its official platform that the president should nominate only judges with clear conservative records.

McCain will target Barack Obama’s vote against John Roberts in the Wake Forest address, a vulnerable spot for the Democrat who claims to want to reach across the aisle and put aside partisanship. Obama even tried to use the Roberts confirmation as an example of his New Politics, but McCain will remind his audience that Obama caved under pressure from his party leaders to toe the line on Roberts while other Democrats showed a lot more political courage. It demonstrates rather nicely the hollow rhetoric of a rookie politician who has not taken a single risky vote in the three short years he has been on Capitol Hill.

It seems like McCain has the tightwire act well under way, but he’d better be careful not to tip too far to the Left on immigration. The center for that policy supports a borders-first approach, and McCain will find it easier not to fall if he follows that path.