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Perils of Immigration Issue May Cut Both Ways

Can candidates "out-Tancredo Tancredo?" (AP).

Few issues hold more peril for the 2008 presidential nominees of both parties than illegal immigration. Its capacity to inflame passions is matched only by its capacity to defy solutions. Both parties are on notice, but there is new evidence that the Republicans could be long-term losers in the debate.

Anger over illegal immigration has shaped the Republican nominating contest, as the last Republican debate in Florida amply demonstrated. Tom Tancredo, who entered the presidential campaign solely because of his opposition to illegal immigration (and who nonetheless has managed to go nowhere) summed up an early exchange between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney as the two trying to "out-Tancredo Tancredo."

Immigration has played a less central role in the Democratic nomination battle, but nonetheless has shown its potency at candidate events and in at least two candidate debates. Pent-up frustration with illegal immigration is regular fare in the questions Democratic candidates hear at their town hall meetings.

Two Republicans, Giuliani and John McCain, have been forced to alter their rhetoric and their approach to the issue because of this anger. As mayor of New York, Giuliani was openly welcoming of immigrants and hardly hostile to illegal immigrants. He spoke out eloquently against anti-immigration sentiments at the time. Today, his immigration platform has been reduced to assurances that he can secure the borders.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently took Giuliani to task in a perceptive analysis, arguing that he had abandoned his past position in pursuit of the presidential nomination. "Someday Rudy Giuliani will look back on this moment and wonder why he didn't run as himself," Brooks concluded.

When I spoke to Giuliani about this recently, he argued that his views have not changed, but the politics of immigration today require political leaders to adopt a different approach. "He's wrong because you can't, you can't, you can't possibly achieve expansion of legal immigration without ending illegal immigration," he said. "We're beyond the point where it's debatable any longer."

Giuliani said people who don't see are ignoring the obvious. "The editorials I see in the New York Times and the Washington Post [calling for comprehensive reform] are irrelevant," he said. "They can write them all they want. They're not going to get the reform they want. I think I can get them the reform they want, but you've got to do it in steps. And there's nobody that cares about immigration and understands the values of it more than I do."

To make expanded legal immigration possible today, the government must first restore public faith in government's commitment and capacity to shut down illegal immigration. "It reminds me of the things I had to do to reduce crime in New York," he said. "I first had to give people confidence that it could be done."

McCain's campaign has been damaged enormously by his support for comprehensive immigration legislation that would include a path for legal status for those undocumented workers in the country.

Chastened by what happened, McCain now tells Republican audiences he has gotten the message. He continues to urge reason and civility in the immigration debate, but he like Giuliani has put the issue of dealing with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States on the back burner.

McCain, during a recent interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, said he has never encountered a domestic issue that creates "'such an emotional response" as illegal immigration. "I've never seen anything like this and it grieves me," he said.

But McCain said his experience with this issue has led him to the same conclusion as Giuliani. "The next president is going to have to convince people that he will secure the borders," he said.

Democrats are now beginning to recognize this. Democratic presidential candidates hear some of the same anger or resentment or worry about the impact of illegal immigration on small communities in Iowa or South Carolina or other states far from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Republican candidates like Giuliani believe Democrats have made themselves vulnerable on the immigration issue by not standing up strongly enough and in the case of several of them, by publicly supporting the idea of giving illegal immigrants drivers licenses.

Barack Obama underscored his concern recently when he said the party's presidential nominee must be ready to deal with a Republican onslaught on immigration in the general election. "We have to make absolutely clear that the Democratic Party is committed to stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into this country," he said aboard his campaign bus last month.

Anger may be shaping the presidential campaign debate, but there are signs that the immigration debate also is producing a backlash within the Latino community. The Pew Hispanic Center released a poll this week that showed Republicans losing ground among Hispanics.

"After spending the first part of this decade loosening their historic ties to the Democratic Party, Hispanic voters have reversed course in the past year," the authors Paul Taylor and Richard Fry write.

The poll found that 57 percent of Hispanics now identify with the Democratic Party compared with just 23 percent who call themselves Republicans. The gap between the parties have grown from 21 points in 2006 to 34 points today. Although a substantial number of Latinos see no difference between the parties on immigration, those who do see a difference overwhelmingly view the Democrats as doing a better job.

Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, addressed the long-term implications of the immigration debate in his book, "Microtrends." By Penn's estimate, there were 16 million Hispanics eligible to vote in 2004 but only 8 million did vote, leaving 8 million prospective voters to be mobilized in 2008.

"Voters who want to keep immigrants out are already in the political system," he wrote. "But voters who want America to be true to its heritage of immigration are being awakened, mobilized and newly activated."

These are the competing realities in the immigration debate. Genuine anger and frustration among a part of the population and a potentially significant counter reaction within the Latino community over the political response. Failure to recognize and respond to both would be foolhardy.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  December 7, 2007; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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