It's the hottest political issue to hit California in years.
But less than a week before the votes are counted, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and some of the state's most prominent elected officials have yet to take a stand on Proposition 187, the emotion-packed ballot measure that would bar illegal immigrants from most government services and require local health, educational and police officials to report suspects to state and federal authorities.
The list of lingering fence-sitters includes state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren; Matt Fong, Republican candidate for state treasurer; state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi; Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, and San Diego Mayor Susan Golding.
Also failing to weigh in has been the state's senior public official emeritus--former President and two-term Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Political observers say there is a natural inclination among cautious officials to gauge which way the wind is blowing before stepping into the fray.
"Sometimes you guess wrong and you get burned," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School.
In the case of the sweeping anti-illegal immigrant measure, the wind's direction has become less clear as Election Day approaches. Once boasting a runaway lead in the polls, the measure's support has narrowed in recent weeks and its passage no longer appears certain.
However, the measure's volatility and divisive nature have also led both sides to thinly veil their distaste for politicians refusing to make their preference known.
"There's no hiding in the dark on this subject--we have made this an issue of national attention now," said Robert Kiley, political strategist for the pro-187 campaign committee. "Some of them are trying to duck it. Some of them have taken a long time to come around. But it is the obligation of every elected official to tell their constituency how they stand on Proposition 187."
For once, opponents of the ballot measure agree with their foes.
"I think you show leadership by saying 'this is how I'm going to vote,' " said Scott Macdonald, spokesman for Taxpayers Against 187. "These are people asking the voters to follow them or put them in a position of responsibility."
Republican Riordan, who drew national news coverage last weekend for his endorsement of Democratic Senate incumbent Dianne Feinstein's reelection bid, has decided to stay neutral precisely because the issue is so rancorous, says mayoral press secretary Noelia Rodriguez.
"He's not planning to take a position," Rodriguez said. "He has said . . . it would be divisive for the city if he took a position on it, recognizing the fact it is such an emotional issue."
At the same time, the mayor of the nation's second-largest city has made some cryptic comments indicating he has problems with key provisions of the measure, which would bar illegal immigrants from virtually all government services except emergency health care.
"He has said he doesn't believe that any person, especially children, should be denied basic services such as health, education and nutrition," said Rodriguez. "He also believes that local governments should be compensated by the federal government, because it is not enforcing immigration laws adequately and local governments have to incur the expenses."
Riordan may be caught in the middle of his ongoing relationships with leaders on both ends of the Proposition 187 spectrum, observers say. For years, the first-term mayor and prominent businessman has been close to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, one of the most outspoken opponents of Proposition 187. On the other hand, Riordan also has close ties to Gov. Pete Wilson, who has employed the get-tough ballot measure as a cornerstone of his reelection campaign.
Jeffe terms the mayor "a real puzzle."
"He's got political cover from (conservative former Republican Cabinet secretaries) Jack F. Kemp and William J. Bennett. He himself has criticized the initiative and has endorsed one highly visible candidate. Perhaps he's holding back so as not to embarrass Pete Wilson, who he has also endorsed."
Lungren, also a Republican, has been attacked repeatedly by Democratic election foe Tom Umberg for failing to take a stand on Proposition 187.
Lungren, who has said recently that he is still studying the measure, said Monday that he intends to take a position prior to Election Day.
Questioning why Lungren would still be studying the issue at this late date, Umberg says he came to his own conclusion to oppose the measure by reading the attorney general's own brief summary of the initiative in the state's official ballot pamphlet.
During a news conference Monday, Lungren said he would defend the initiative against expected lawsuits if it is approved by state voters. But he also made clear that he would not prosecute educators, health administrators and others for failing to report suspected illegal immigrants to state and federal authorities, since the measure makes no specific provisions for enforcement.
To those seeking his position on Proposition 187, treasurer candidate Fong has sent out letters saying that there are good arguments on both sides--and that he is remaining neutral.
"We do have a problem with illegal immigration. And, our state Legislature and the federal government are unwilling to address this problem," writes Fong, who serves on the State Board of Equalization. "However, the unintended consequences of Proposition 187 concern me.
Also not publicly announcing a position has been Garamendi, who was defeated by Kathleen Brown in the June Democratic gubernatorial primary.
San Diego Mayor Golding has also declined to take a position on Proposition 187, despite being a staunch supporter of Wilson and one of the first public officials to express concern about illegal immigrants and crime.
While a county supervisor in the late 1980s, Golding caused a furor by blaming illegal immigrants for a large portion of the crime wave plaguing the county's affluent suburban areas. She was forced to back down when her statistics proved faulty.
Golding is not alone among San Diego officials in sitting out the Proposition 187 debate. Neither the San Diego City Council nor the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which has sued the federal government to recover millions of dollars spent on providing services for illegal immigrants, has taken a position.
In Orange County, the birthplace of the Proposition 187 movement, Supervisor Vasquez, the county's highest-ranking elected Latino official, has drawn fire for his refusal to take a stand.
"I haven't taken a conclusive position," Vasquez said last week. "I don't intend to get involved in the campaign for either side."
Proponents of the measure, including William S. King, executive vice president of Americans Against Illegal Immigration, say Vasquez is acting out of fear of losing his job.
"I think every official should show his colors on it," said King. "I don't think he has shown much courage. These people should be standing up one way or the other. This is not the time to be hiding around the skirts of 'no comment.' "
Arturo Montez, a spokesman for the League of United Latin American Citizens, has also attacked Vasquez, who was appointed to the board by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1987 and elected to a four-year term in a predominantly non-Latino district in 1992.
"Gaddi Vasquez is the highest-ranking Latino in the county and he's used it to propel his political career here and on the national level," Montez said. "But obviously he feels he is on the right side of the street, the safe side, and he wishes to become a spectator just like the good Germans did when they watched other Germans being marched to the ovens."
Former President Reagan, whose endorsement or opposition would be seen as valuable, could not be reached for comment. Repeated calls to his Century City office were not returned by his press spokesmen.
Longtime Reagan insider Lyn Nofziger, contacted in Washington, said, "It's hard to get a (public) statement from him on anything anymore."
Times staff writers Tony Perry and Matt Lait contributed to this story.