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GOP rivals veer right on immigration

Top hopefuls don't want to be seen as coddling illegals. Huckabee, Giuliani, Romney all toughen their stances.

December 12, 2007|Peter Wallsten and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — More than any other question, Republican presidential candidates are asking voters to consider a single issue in the weeks before primary voting begins: Who detests illegal immigration the most?

Rudolph W. Giuliani, who as mayor of New York supported policies that benefited illegal immigrants, now says he would have happily swept out all 400,000 in his city if only the federal government had cooperated.

Mitt Romney mailed a new flier to South Carolina voters Tuesday ripping three of his rivals as coddlers of illegal immigrants. And Mike Huckabee, fresh from introducing a newly toughened immigration plan last week, Tuesday accepted the endorsement of a co-founder of the Minuteman Project, the civilian border enforcement movement.

"Americans are very frustrated that they feel like their government has just ignored a problem, let it get worse, spiraled out of control and, by golly, they expect us to fix it," Huckabee said during a stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he was joined by Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist.

Long a point of tension in the Republican race, illegal immigration has surpassed even national security and the economy as the GOP candidates search for advantage in neck-and-neck contests in early-voting states.

Not only are the candidates toughening their own stances and language, they are using the issue to paint each other as out of step with the border-enforcement wishes of conservative voters. Surveys show that in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, illegal immigration is an issue of significant concern to GOP voters -- more so than some strategists had predicted. A poll published this month in Newsweek magazine showed that 63% of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers considered a candidate's views on illegal immigration "very important."

"We've known for a while that it was a significant issue, but for it to overshadow Iraq, the economy and healthcare is pretty stunning," said Al Cardenas, a Cuba-born former Florida Republican Party chairman who is advising Romney on immigration issues.

For Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has been criticized for his once-moderate views on abortion and other social issues, illegal immigration is perhaps his best weapon to use in attacks on his rivals.

The new Romney mail piece in South Carolina follows his campaign's first attack television ad, an Iowa spot that cites Huckabee's support in 2005, while governor of Arkansas, for legislation that would have made in-state college tuition benefits available to the children of illegal immigrants.

But while the Iowa TV ad targets only Huckabee, whose support from evangelical Christians has helped him surge in that state, the South Carolina mailer adds Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson to the list. It cites Giuliani's support for welfare benefits for illegal immigrants, among other things, and accuses Thompson of a "do-nothing record" on the issue.

As governor of Massachusetts, the flier notes, Romney opposed driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and ordered state troopers to cooperate with federal officials in detaining illegal immigrants -- though it does not point out that he did so only in the final weeks of his term, as he was preparing to run for president.

Romney's campaign has distributed similar fliers in recent days in New Hampshire as well. But he has also been battling his own record, which includes employing, for work at his Boston home, a landscaping firm that hired illegal immigrants. Romney announced last week that the firm would no longer do work for either him or one of his sons, who lives nearby.

The discovery that illegal immigrants had actually worked at Romney's home prompted Giuliani to chide him for owning a "sanctuary mansion" -- a takeoff of the "sanctuary city" line used often by Romney to describe Giuliani's illegal-immigrant-friendly policies as New York mayor.

But Giuliani, once viewed by immigrant-rights advocates as the politician most sympathetic to their cause, made it clear this week that he will not be outdone in his opposition to illegal immigration. In an interview for "Meet the Next President," a new book by Washington Examiner reporter Bill Sammon, he lamented that the federal government should have deported all the illegal immigrants in his city -- not just the few hundred that were removed during his time in office.

"If they could, I would have turned all the people over," Giuliani said in a book excerpt published Tuesday in the Examiner. "It would have helped me. I would have had a smaller population. I would have had fewer problems."

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