For Republicans, Contest's Hallmark Is Immigration

A steady decrease in the general population coupled by an increase in Hispanic residents, if ever so slight, has made immigration a top issue for Iowans in Clay County. Video by PIerre Kattar/
By Jonathan Weisman
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The imagery of the mailings is designed to pack a wallop: a Mexican flag fluttering above the Stars and Stripes, the Statue of Liberty presiding over a "Welcome Illegal Aliens" doormat, a Social Security card emblazoned with the name "Juan Doe," a U.S. passport proclaiming, "Only one candidate has a plan to STAMP out illegal immigration."

As Republican presidential candidates troll for votes, they have flooded mailboxes in Iowa and New Hampshire with such loaded images. Their campaigns have filled the airwaves, packed their Web sites and taunted their adversaries, proclaiming their concern over porous borders and accusing opponents of insufficient vigilance.

No issue has dominated the Republican presidential nomination fight the way illegal immigration has. Under consistent attack for inconsistent conservatism, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has turned to the issue again and again to shore up his conservative credentials. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, running as the law-and-order candidate, has been forced onto the defensive by immigration policies in his city.

And just days after he delivered a passionate defense of the humanity of undocumented children in a Republican debate, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee presented one of the most punitive immigration platforms seen in this campaign season, rejecting legislation to provide the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they finish high school, attend two years of college or join the military.

Giuliani, Huckabee and Romney have all used illegal immigration to try to prove to voters that they are the toughest and most conservative candidates in the field. And they have used it with brutal consistency in an attempt to marginalize Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), whose vocal support for legislation to clamp down on border security while offering illegal immigrants a path to citizenship helped cost him his front-runner status.

Romney, despite facing criticism about some of his own immigration policies in Massachusetts and the fact that he was forced to dismiss a company that tended his lawn after it was revealed that it employed illegal immigrants, has attacked all of his rivals on the issue. A new CNN poll shows Romney with sizable advantages over the competition on the handling of illegal immigration, with a lead of 17 percentage points over Huckabee on the matter.

"You have a strong field, but their strengths and weaknesses cancel each other out. No one candidate is standing out as particularly stronger than the rest of the field or more conservative than the rest of the field," said Ken Mehlman, President Bush's former campaign manager, who spent years courting Latino voters for the Republican cause. "And in that dynamic, the desire is to stand up on every issue and say, 'I'm the strongest, and I'm the most conservative.' "

And nowhere is that more obvious than in the debate over immigration, he said.

The strategy poses a real risk. As the rhetoric and the policy proposals have grown increasingly strident, the eventual nominee's ability to win Latino support in swing states such as Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico may be coming increasingly into question.

"For Republican primary politics, this may be the most significant issue. Clearly, there is a segment that is hotly anti-immigrant, and they're very engaged," said Cecilia Mu┬┐oz, senior vice president for public policy at the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino political organization. "But I don't understand what these guys are going to say to my community when it's time to run" a general-election campaign.

But if Republicans can focus the debate on law-breaking, border security and the strain that illegal immigrants are placing on public services, the issue could also place a wedge between many Democrats and their eventual nominee.

Less than a year after Bush resumed his push to offer the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, most of his would-be GOP successors could not have moved further from his platform. Even McCain now embraces policies to clamp down on employers and to seal the border with fencing, unmanned aerial vehicles and beefed-up border patrols. Only when the border is certified as closed would he then consider what to do with the illegal immigrants already in the country.

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