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Immigration debate puts up a wall in the GOP

Pursue Latino voters or please the party's base? The Senate overhaul bill reveals a split on what political road is best for Republicans.

May 27, 2007|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The roiling congressional debate over a plan to legalize undocumented immigrants has rekindled a bitter fight in the Republican Party over the best strategy to restore the GOP to political dominance -- with each side accusing the other of following a course that would destroy the party for decades.

The clash has grown increasingly intense in recent days, drawing in the most senior figures in Republican politics. President Bush aimed unusually pointed language Thursday at critics, many in his own party, who opposed a more permanent status for illegal immigrants.

Two conservative senators were booed by Republican crowds in their home states last week for endorsing the legalization effort. And conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh attacked the Bush-backed plan as the "Destroy the Republican Party Act."

On Friday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tied his presidential campaign more tightly to the view that a welcoming immigration policy would boost the GOP in important swing states as he scheduled a June 4 address on the plan in immigrant-rich Miami and attacked his leading rivals for opposing the measure.

At issue are not just different approaches to immigration but competing visions for how to rebuild and maintain a base of loyal Republican voters.

Many Republican strategists and Bush allies blame election defeats last year in part on the loss of Latino voters after a flurry of anti-illegal immigration ads that strategists say exploited ethnic stereotypes. They say Republicans cannot hope to win a national majority without substantial support from the fast-growing Latino voting bloc.

"I believe that not to play this card right would be the destruction of our party," said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), the Cuban-born general chairman of the Republican National Committee, who helped write Senate legislation creating a path to citizenship for most of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. "Hispanics make up about 13% of our country and by 2020 will be closer to 20%. It is a demographic trend that one cannot overlook."

Directing his criticism squarely at Limbaugh, Martinez added, "He has emotion on his side, but I think I have logic on mine."

But conservatives and many opinion leaders argue that backing the immigration bill is a dangerous course because it angers the GOP's mostly white base, as well as swing voters open to the message of national security and law enforcement.

Some argue that new citizens may be more likely to vote Democratic, so strategically it makes little sense to increase their numbers. Limbaugh, with an estimated 13 million listeners each week, described the Senate legislation as Democrats "getting a brand new electorate, reshaping it and being able to win election after election after election."

A public spat such as this would have been unheard of three years ago, when Limbaugh and others like him teamed with the White House and Republican National Committee to reelect Bush and build a network designed to ensure long-term dominance.

Even when running for Texas governor in the mid-1990s, Bush and his political aides worked to forge stronger ties to Latinos, the country's fastest-growing minority. They continued that effort during Bush's two presidential races, waging a sophisticated, bilingual campaign that many credit with helping the GOP make inroads into a constituency that had been moving to the Democrats.

Now, some party strategists fear the effort will end, whether or not Congress approves an immigration overhaul. They point to high emotions stirred up by the legislation, and note that all of the GOP's major presidential contenders except McCain are saying the measure may be too soft on illegal immigrants.

"We are at a crossroads in our country and, yes, in our political party," said Rudy Fernandez, a former deputy to White House strategist Karl Rove and one of the GOP's chief architects of Latino outreach.

The citizenship plan is part of a bipartisan bill being debated in the Senate. The bill would increase border security and stiffen penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants, a priority for conservatives. But it would offer probationary legal status to illegal workers who were in the U.S. before Jan. 1 of this year, and create a path to citizenship for most of them, provisions that anger many conservatives.

Another contentious provision would permit hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to enter the country temporarily.

Shortly after senators announced the compromise bill, two top presidential contenders, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, criticized it. Romney called it an "incredible gift" to illegal immigrants and described it as a form of amnesty.

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