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Issue of Illegal Immigration Is Quandary for Democrats

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Hispanic in the Democratic presidential field, has said that fences along the U.S.-Mexico border send
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Hispanic in the Democratic presidential field, has said that fences along the U.S.-Mexico border send "a terrible signal." (By William Thomas Cain -- Getty Images )

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By Perry Bacon Jr. and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 2, 2007

Until Tuesday night, the Democratic presidential candidates had largely ignored the subject of illegal immigration. The topic, Democratic strategists concluded, was fraught with too much potential for alienating general election voters.

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But after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) struggled to answer a question during Tuesday's debate about whether she supports a proposal to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, the topic burst into the forefront of the primary campaign and exposed a quandary for Democratic candidates, who broadly embrace immigrant-friendly policies.

While voters are in line with Democratic positions on issues such as Iraq and health care, immigration remains a thornier subject. Polls suggest that most Americans want to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country and create ways for them to obtain citizenship, but party strategists say the voters who care most about this issue are those angry about illegal immigration and want to hear a tougher message.

"The reality is that this is an issue where people support what Democrats have to say on a policy level, but Democrats do not reflect the emotional tone and intensity of the electorate," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist.

Immigration, chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn said, is emerging as "a new wedge issue" for Republicans, who will attempt to use it to paint Democrats as weak on border security.

When asked about New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's proposal to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, Clinton initially refused to answer, but her campaign put out a statement the next day saying she does support such as move.

The moment was more than just a stumble for the Democratic front-runner. It also illustrated the fine line Democrats, who depend heavily on the Hispanic vote and soft-pedal the idea of harsh penalties for people who enter the country illegally, will have to walk on the issue.

All of the Democratic contenders have embraced some form of "comprehensive reform" -- including a failed measure, backed by President Bush, that would have given about 12 million illegal immigrants a path toward legal citizenship. Most of the Republican presidential candidates opposed that legislation and have focused their rhetoric on improving border security.

Polls showed a majority of Americans supported that legislation, but two-thirds also thought the United States was not doing enough to stem the tide of illegal immigration, according to an ABC News poll taken in September. Among the Democratic presidential candidates, only Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) broke with Clinton and opposed the driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

According to a CNN poll last month, 76 percent of Americans oppose giving licenses to illegal immigrants, compared with 23 percent who favor it.

Democracy Corps, a polling group run by Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville, put out a memo this week addressing the challenges immigration presents to the party.

"Voters want control of the borders and workplace and recreating an immigration system that works and oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, positions supported by two thirds of the country," said the memo, which was released before the debate.

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