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GOP Finds Hot Button in Illegal Immigration

Democrat Niki Tsongas won by only 51 to 45 percent in a district that gave presidential hopefuls Al Gore and John F. Kerry 57 percent of the vote.
Democrat Niki Tsongas won by only 51 to 45 percent in a district that gave presidential hopefuls Al Gore and John F. Kerry 57 percent of the vote. (By David H. Brow -- Associated Press)

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But even that might be deceptively tight, said Glen Bolger, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies. In the poll, the GOP position was framed as getting control of the border, requiring illegal immigrants to reenter the country legally, stopping illegal immigrants from getting government benefits and sending illegal immigrants who are criminals packing. The Democratic position was, "It is impractical to expel 12 million people, but we need tougher controls at the borders, tougher penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants and we should bar illegal immigrants from getting most government benefits, while allowing the law-abiding immigrants to get on a long path to citizenship."

That Democratic message is much tougher than the one most voters are hearing, Bolger argued. "They're actually in worse shape than they think they are," he said.

Dustin Olson, Ogonowski's campaign manager, said the candidate did not intend to make government benefits for illegal immigrants a centerpiece of the campaign, but it came up unbidden, again and again.

Internal polling found that Ogonowski's tough stance was winning 60 percent to 30 percent over the positions articulated by Tsongas, said Rob Autry, another Public Opinion Strategies partner who served as Ogonowski's pollster. Ogonowski's position on taxes had a narrower, 13 percentage point lead. Every other issue "was dicey," he said.

Then, just two days before Tuesday's balloting, Tsongas said illegal immigrants should each be allowed to get a driver's license. The final radio ad of the Ogonowski insurgency intoned, "And now for something truly incredible. You already know Niki Tsongas supports amnesty for illegal immigrants, but today we learned Niki Tsongas would go even further. Tsongas told the Boston Herald she wants to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants."

John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said the final vote proved the limits of the immigration message. The district may be less Democratic than the presidential numbers make it appear, he cautioned. Republican gubernatorial candidates have carried it handily since 1990, until Deval L. Patrick, the current Democratic governor, won it with 51 percent of the vote, the same percentage Tsongas took.

If Ogonowski's internal polling showed him trailing by 10 points in September, his immigration blitz made up only five points, he said.

But in districts where Democrats do not have five points to give, those numbers loom large. "For the American people, and therefore all of us, it's emerged as the third rail of American politics," Emanuel said. "And anyone who doesn't realize that isn't with the American people."


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