Gomer Pyle and the GOP

There is, in fact, a dime's worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Why, on immigration, the difference can get into real money.

The Democratic candidates were sitting around a big table in a radio studio the other day participating in an altogether civil and restrained debate on National Public Radio. There were no rallying supporters in the room to rile partisan passions and agitate competitive energy.

The long-form format by which only three topics were discussed, those being Iran, China and immigration, served thoughtfulness over rancor.

The moderator asked the hopefuls if they believed they should personally turn in an illegal immigrant to the authorities if they came upon one.

All the candidates said no, sagely. Barack Obama gets credit for taking the question first and nailing it. Dennis Kucinich, as always, disposed of the matter most simply, saying we're not vigilantes in America.

Actually, though, I liked Hillary Clinton's answer a tad better than the rest. That's only because Clinton gently chided the moderator for asking a "clever" question, but one not really all that substantive when you got right down to it.

She's always had a way of dismissing questions as somehow beneath her.

In this case, the manner served her well.

Seriously, it's up to federal authorities to control our borders. We can't honestly be suggesting that everyday people start scurrying around like Mayberry's Gomer Pyle shouting "citizen's array-ust, citizen's array-ust."

(For the young and uninitiated: Gomer Pyle was a charmingly innocent bucolic character on the classic television sitcom of the 1960s, the "Andy Griffith Show." Gomer looked a little in the face like the newly svelte Mike Huckabee, actually.)

But the Democratic exercise put me in mind of the responses we might have received from the Republican presidential candidates to the same question.

Mitt Romney might have said "yes," he would turn in illegal aliens, but only after he had prevailed on them to clean his lawn.

Rudy Giuliani might have said "yes," unless the illegal immigrants were in New York City, where they were essential for menial work, but not as cabdrivers, because they must not be given driver's licenses.

Huckabee might have said he would have them arrested, but only after determining whether they had any children, in which case he'd offer the kids in-state college tuition and scholarships.

Fred Thompson might have said to repeat the question because he'd been a little groggy ever since the Thanksgiving turkey.

Ron Paul might have said we deserved illegal invaders because we're illegal invaders ourselves all over the globe.

Tom Tancredo might have said, yes, absolutely, he'd turn them in, and, what's more, he's for waterboarding anybody whom he might suspect of being an illegal alien.

Have I missed anyone? Oh, yes, John McCain. He's hard to spoof on this issue, having behaved responsibly on it.

He took the Republican lead in the Senate on a bipartisan plan to set up a guest worker program and citizenship path for illegal immigrants working here and otherwise behaving themselves, combining that with provisions seeking to fortify employment regulation and border security measures.

It's the only practical solution to the problem, but it could happen only with a robust Democratic majority or a McCain presidency, or as far from an election as possible.

But in the current Republican culture, McCain is only now beginning to show slight signs of recovery from such sanity and decency.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.