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.
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.
But noting that many African Americans, a strongly Democratic group, oppose creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, they wrote "this is a real wedge issue that Democrats need to get right."
The complexity was underscored last month, when Democratic Rep.-elect Nikki Tsongas, wife of the late senator and presidential candidate Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, barely won a special election for a Democratic-leaning congressional seat in Massachusetts after her opponent focused on illegal immigration, particularly Tsongas's backing of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
At a September forum in Miami hosted by the Latino television network Univision, Dodd, Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) were all sharply questioned about why they had voted in Congress to build a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
All three noted their support for broader rights for Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal, but they said tighter border security is important.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Hispanic in the Democratic presidential field, called the idea of a border fence "a terrible symbol."
But unlike the Republicans, who have been very specific in how they would fight illegal immigration, the Democrats have said little except when asked about the issue, not addressing the most explosive elements, such as whether to build a fence on the southern U.S. border or to give immigrants sanctuary in urban areas.
"Any Democrat who tried to use immigration as a wedge issue would find themselves without much of a constituency in the party," Penn said, explaining why it has not been a hot topic in the Democratic nominating contest.
Democratic strategists remain hopeful that the GOP's anti-illegal immigration rhetoric will hurt them among Latinos, a growing electoral group, 44 percent of whom voted for Bush in 2004, a number Democrats hope to shrink. The Republican contenders have skipped several forums hosted by Latino groups during the campaign.
After Tuesday's debate, a group of Democratic strategists moved to tamp growing fears among party candidates across the country, warning them not to duck the issue and coaching them on how to defuse the topic in a conference aimed at next week's off-year elections in Virginia and Arizona.
Former Clinton aide Simon Rosenberg, head of NDN, a Democratic think tank, said that despite Clinton's answer and Spitzer's problems in New York, Democrats will win the argument if they show they have a "big vision."
"The way this is going to be fought out is not over isolated incidents like this, but whether there are leaders in this country who have a big vision to solving a vexing problem," Rosenberg said. "Every Democrat in this country is for comprehensive immigration reform. The Republicans have a different position that doesn't poll as well: orienting themselves toward complaining instead of solving the problem."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.