Lost in last week's clamor surrounding the Valerie Plame leak investigation was the fact that two Republican senators looking to the 2008 GOP nomination have begun raising their voices about immigration, which promises to be one of the most divisive issues on the campaign trail and Capitol Hill alike.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) sent an e-mail to supporters pledging "to bring border security legislation to the Senate floor" by February. Frist asked people to post messages on his Web site "showing support for a tough border bill." By Friday night, the appeal had generated more than 1,000 messages on Frist's Volunteer PAC site.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) introduced four bills aimed at addressing border security and illegal immigration, calling them an "urgent national security priority."

Over the past several years, restructuring of the country's immigration system has become a flashpoint for the Republican Party's most conservative voters, an influential bloc in any presidential primary process. At the same time, some strategists urged a more welcoming approach on immigration, rhetorically and substantively, to court votes among the growing Hispanic population.

Conservatives were mostly cool to the proposal put forward by the Bush administration earlier this month that would allow the 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States to stay and work for six years before they would be sent home.

In his e-mail, Frist praised President Bush for signing a bill to increase the number of border patrol agents, calling it a "good step forward." But Frist added, "With an estimated 11 million people living here undocumented, it's going to take more than just manpower."

Potential GOP presidential candidates are not the only people talking up immigration overhaul. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, under Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), e-mailed more than 1 million supporters asking them to answer a "National Survey on Immigration Policy."

"I want to know where loyal Republicans like you stand on this critical issue," Dole wrote. "We need to move towards decisive action to address this growing challenge."

Activists Have Hopefuls for Dinner

Attempting to literally dine out on their influence, some Washington-based liberal activists are hosting informal meals with Democratic politicians thought to be considering the 2008 presidential race.

The dinners are hosted by former America Coming Together executive director Steven Rosenthal and America Votes president Cecile Richards. They generally include eight to 10 guests. So far the group has dined with Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner and Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.). Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is next, slated to break bread with the group early in November.

Attendees say there is no agenda at the sessions; the goal is for both sides to become more familiar. "The dinners provide an opportunity for progressive leaders and potential candidates to let their hair down and get to know each other a little better," Rosenthal said.

This gathering and others like it are done largely out of the media glare but represent a key element of the "primary within the primary" in which all prospective 2008 candidates must compete. Wooing key players in the party infrastructure can lead to increased visibility for a candidate among party donors, who will provide the financial backbone of a national campaign, and the ground troops who will be needed to win Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which put a premium on "retail" campaigning.

While most voters won't pay attention to the next presidential race for years, any candidate not playing this insider game is falling behind by the day.

Launching 'the Organizing Group'

Speaking of Rosenthal, he and longtime associate Tom Lindenfeld have opened a consulting firm known as "the Organizing Group." Playing off the two men's longtime involvement in the organized labor movement, the company "will specialize in grass-roots voter mobilization for progressive organizations, (a limited number of) candidates and ballot initiatives," according to a Rosenthal e-mail.

A launch party scheduled for Nov. 14 boasts an impressive list of Democratic luminaries as hosts, including former party chairman Terence R. McAuliffe, Service Employees International Union President Andrew L. Stern and Emily's List founder Ellen Malcolm.

Cillizza is a staff writer with washingtonpost.com. "The Fix," his online column of political news, appears daily at www.washingtonpost.com/thefix.

Sen. Bill Frist vows to bring the issue to the floor by February.Sen. Chuck Hagel sees a national security priority.