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GOP Immigration Tactic: Blast Away, but Be Nice

Still split themselves, candidates hammer Democrats but try not to alienate Latino voters.

July 09, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

DENVER — Hoping to use the volatile issue of illegal immigration to avert a November election disaster, Republican candidates across the country increasingly are attacking their Democratic opponents on the subject.

But mindful of a possible voter backlash, they are attempting to do so without seeming intolerant or divisive.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Rick Santorum has launched an ad accusing his challenger of favoring amnesty for people in the country illegally and giving them "preference over American workers." Rep. Bob Beauprez criticizes his Democratic opponent in the Colorado governor's race for supporting state benefits for illegal immigrants. In the Chicago suburbs, congressional hopeful David McSweeney is attacking Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean on immigration -- even though she voted in favor of the crackdown bill that passed the House in December.

Immigration is a tricky issue for Republicans, and there are deep divisions in the party over what policy and strategy to pursue.

Many blame former California Gov. Pete Wilson's backing in 1994 of anti-illegal-immigrant Proposition 187 for alienating Latinos nationwide.

In California, it sparked a wave of Latino political activism that hurt the GOP's political standing -- a blow from which the party has yet to fully recover.

Still, Republican strategists have "made a decision that, whatever the risk, this is simply a very bad year and the issue is too hot not to put it in the quiver," said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based independent pollster.

The stepped-up Republican assault comes as House GOP leaders began a nationwide series of hearings last week bashing the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill, which they have branded the "Kennedy-Reid" bill -- focusing on two prominent Democratic supporters while ignoring the lead Republican sponsor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

The linguistic dodge reflects the wide split in the GOP over two competing approaches to immigration. President Bush and pro-business Republicans favor a guest worker program and path to citizenship contained in a bill approved by the Senate.

The president reiterated his support for a guest worker program Friday during a press conference in Chicago. "To enforce this border, we've got to have a rational way that recognizes there are people sneaking across to do work Americans aren't doing," he said.

But hard-liners in the party back the tough measures contained in the House's enforcement-only legislation and fiercely oppose the president's guest worker approach.

The official GOP position is that the party will not use immigration as a political bludgeon against Democrats. Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, has made courting Latinos a priority through his years in the White House and has avoided the harsh rhetoric used to rally partisans on other issues.

"It's extremely important that our party be a party of principle, which is to say we're a pro-law enforcement and pro-immigrant party," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, who worked alongside Rove in Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

Still, many Republicans hope a tough-on-illegal-immigration platform can help overcome the political drag of an unpopular president and growing public sentiment against the war in Iraq in November's midterm election.

"That is voiced around here often," Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a House leader in the immigration debate, said in a telephone interview from the Capitol. "The plates have shifted politically, and if you want to get elected, you better not be perceived as being soft on illegal immigration."

Democrats say the GOP assault comes at the party's own peril, especially with immigration bills stalled by infighting in Washington.

"Republicans have signaled they're going to run a single-issue campaign on an issue on which they ultimately don't have a single accomplishment," scoffed Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In some states, Democrats are more hawkish on illegal immigration than their GOP rivals. In Nebraska, for instance, Sen. Ben Nelson is running to the right of his Republican challenger, who backs Bush's proposed guest worker program.

But analysts say the immigration issue could be most potent in the hands of Republicans, who traditionally are associated with a tougher stance against lawbreaking.

"The focus in Washington has been almost exclusively on the risk among Republicans," said Amy Walter, who tracks congressional races for Washington's nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "But there are also Democrats, especially Democrats in conservative-leaning districts, who may also have to find themselves distancing themselves from the national party."

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