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Could Giuliani's California Nod Backfire?

Rudy Giuliani's hopes of scoring a big win in the California primary will get a boost tomorrow when former Golden State governor Pete Wilson is expected to endorse the former New York mayor. But the endorsement -- Giuliani's biggest so far in delegate-rich California -- is also likely to draw more attention to Giuliani's evolving stance on one of the touchiest issues of the 2008 GOP race, immigration -- and may cause eventual complications for Giuliani should he win the Republican nomination.

Giuliani and Wilson are in many ways political soul mates, both Republicans in blue states who are pro-choice but more conservative on foreign policy and national security. But they sharply diverged in the 1990s on immigration. As governor, Wilson was a leading supporter of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that sought to deny illegal immigrants access to public education, social services and medical care. The initiative, which was quickly challenged in court, sparked a fury of protest, effectively launching the national immigration debate and, some say, setting back the GOP cause in California for years to come. Giuliani, as mayor, was one of the Republican Party's most outspoken critics of the initiative, calling it "inhumane" and arguing that it would backfire by simply putting illegal immigrant children on the street instead of in school.

Giuliani's criticisms of Prop 187 were just one of many stances he took as mayor in favor of a pragmatic -- critics would say permissive -- approach to immigration. He continued a policy begun under his predecessor that barred police, school officials or medical workers from reporting suspected illegal immigrants to federal authorities, so as not to discourage illegal immigrants from reporting crimes or seeking education and medical attention. He made clear that the city welcomed illegal migrants, saying in 1994, "Some of the hardest-working and most productive people in this city are undocumented aliens. If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city." He expressed doubts about shutting down America's borders, saying in 1996, "We're never going to be able to totally control immigration to a country that is as large as ours."

On the campaign trail this year, Giuliani has taken a tougher stance, saying that his lenient policies in New York were simply an attempt to maintain public safety (by getting immigrants to report crimes) and proposing tougher border controls and a national tamperproof ID card for all guest workers and students. Still, he has not spoken out as strongly against illegal immigration as some of his rivals, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, which is why his endorsement by Wilson is eye-catching.

Frank Sharry, director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum, said he was dumbfounded by the endorsement. Giuliani "was the self-proclaimed most pro-immigrant mayor in America. He was very outspoken in the mid-'90s in opposition to the anti-immigration direction of the party spearheaded by Pete Wilson. When I saw this today I said, 'Ohmigod,'" said Sharry.

He predicted that while the association with Wilson might serve Giuliani well in the primary, it would greatly complicate an eventual pivot back toward the center on the immigration issue in the general election, should Giuliani win the nomination, because Wilson and Prop 187 are still so unpopular in the Hispanic community. Sharry recalled that Gray Davis had great success in his race for California governor with ads linking his opponent with Wilson, and noted that Hispanic Republicans in 2000 urged George W. Bush -- also a critic of Prop 187 -- not to campaign with Wilson.

"All the Democratic candidate will have to do is send around a flyer [showing Giuliani with Wilson.] Pete Wilson is el diablo in this community. He's the guy who started the anti-immigration backlash ... Pete Wilson's name is still said as if it's a swear word by Spanish-speaking immigrants, it's like Bull Connor was to African-Americans in the South," Sharry said. "Giuliani is not stupid -- he's a sending a message to Republicans that says, 'I am as tough as my new rhetoric is.' But this forecloses running back to the center ... I thought up until today that Rudy would have a chance to compete in Florida and the Southwest [in the general election], but I think he just wrote the Spanish language campaign ad that's going to just kill him."

--Alec MacGillis

By Washington Post editors  |  September 26, 2007; 6:10 PM ET
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