As he kicked off a recent call with voters, Republican Senate candidate Tom Campbell wanted to talk about reducing the national debt. But the first voter to address Campbell quickly veered off topic to the tough new immigration law in Arizona.
San Diego resident Dianna Piper told the former congressman that she didn't understand why people opposed it. For more than a year, she said, she had called lawmakers in Washington demanding more attention to border security: "It seems like nobody has been listening."
Less than a week later, Campbell again was pressed on immigration. Ellen Glass, a voter from San Jose, bridled at his support for the Arizona law. She told him the measure had given her flashbacks of an uncomfortable encounter with police who pulled her over for a broken taillight. "I cannot imagine being stopped by police because of the type of car I was driving or the way I looked," she told Campbell.
The three-way Republican primary race to challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has been dominated by pocketbook concerns, but the new Arizona law requiring police to question subjects about their immigration status has quickly captured the attention of voters. It is also likely to be a focus of Thursday night's debate in Los Angeles between the three major contenders — Campbell, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
With five weeks to go before the primary, the issue already has proven volatile. Both the Fiorina and DeVore campaigns have questioned the authenticity of Campbell's position on the Arizona law. DeVore has blasted Fiorina for "flip-flopping" on immigration issues and for refusing to take a position on Proposition 187, the 1994 California ballot measure that would have denied public education and social services to illegal immigrants.
As with the issue of healthcare, immigration imposes on the three Republican contenders a difficult dilemma — how to appeal to conservative Republicans who are the most reliable primary voters without alienating independents who would be crucial to defeating Boxer this fall.
"Almost by definition, candidates who deliver a message on this issue that is acceptable to the base run the risk of driving away voters in the political center," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
Shortly after the passage of the Arizona law, Campbell and DeVore expressed support for the measure, emphasizing that police must have "reasonable suspicion" about a person's status before requesting immigration papers.
Fiorina unfurled her position on the Arizona law over several days but also supports it. During a gathering with voters in Chico this week, Fiorina said she was "outraged" every time she hears "the people of Arizona vilified" by Democrats.
"They are trying to change the subject," Fiorina said. "The most fundamental responsibility of the federal government is to protect its citizens…President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security, Barbara Boxer--they have all failed in this most fundamental of duties."
Allan Hoffenblum, the Republican publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, noted that GOP conservatives in other states with large numbers of Latino voters have more forcefully criticized the measure. Florida GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio said it could "unreasonably" single out legal residents, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry said "it would not be the right direction for Texas."
"So far, the Republicans running for U.S. Senate are more interested in appealing to white voters in Arizona than Latino voters in California — and they better be careful," Hoffenblum said.
Few were surprised by DeVore's backing of the Arizona law, because he supported Proposition 187. DeVore drew applause at a recent "tea party" event in Rolling Hills Estates when he defended the Arizona law as a "cry for help" and said he believed officers would avoid racial profiling.
"If there are a bunch of people standing in front of a Home Depot looking for day jobs, and a police officer walks up to them and says 'Hi, how's it going?' and they look nervous and they can't respond in English — well then you probably have reasonable suspicion to ask them for their papers," DeVore told the Peninsula Patriots.
Campbell's position was more surprising, given his strategy when he challenged Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2000. In that campaign, Campbell courted Latino voters by airing television ads that faulted Feinstein for supporting a national identification card and accused her of being a late opponent of Proposition 187. He also highlighted his early opposition to Prop. 187, which was largely struck down by the courts.
Campbell said his support for the Arizona law is consistent with his respect for the rule of law. "On the face of the law there is nothing unconstitutional about it," he said.