A growing dispute among California Republicans over illegal immigration threatens to undercut the party's struggle to recover from the devastating Latino backlash against its support for Proposition 187, the landmark 1994 ballot measure.
The March 2 Republican primary has heightened tensions within the party as candidates up and down the ballot sharpen their rhetoric.
A conservative faction is in open revolt against steps that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Bush have taken on illegal immigration, moves widely seen as overtures to Latino voters. Schwarzenegger has signaled that he would sign a bill granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and Bush has proposed legal status for millions of undocumented workers.
Led by U.S. Senate hopeful Howard Kaloogian, the conservative candidates see their harder line on illegal immigration as a potent appeal to voters in the primary. "What the president's proposal does is reach for paper towels while the flood into our country continues," he said.
The rift comes after Republicans managed to squelch their perennial ideological warfare and unite behind the recall of Gov. Gray Davis in October, with most rallying behind the election's winner, Schwarzenegger.
The current split has alarmed party strategists who say the GOP must make inroads with the state's rapidly growing Latino population to overcome the Democrats' dominance in California.
Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who specializes in campaign appeals to Latinos, said candidates stressing tough stands on immigration risked reviving a "mean-spirited" image that had harmed the party for years -- even if the GOP stand was in line with that of most voters.
That was the case with Proposition 187, which would have denied education and most other public services to illegal immigrants had it not been struck down in court.
"It certainly doesn't help with Hispanics," Madrid said. "There's a very serious danger of overplaying our hand on these issues."
Among the most combative Republicans on immigration this season is congressional candidate Rico Oller, a state senator from the Sacramento area.
A centerpiece of his campaign is a pledge to fight for a federal law barring all states from allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.
"Rico Oller understands how terrorists can use a driver's license to infiltrate our state," an Oller television ad says.
A perennial issue in hard economic times, illegal immigration flared into prominence last year when Davis tried to secure Latino support in the recall by signing a driver's license law for illegal immigrants. The gesture was indeed popular among Latinos, polls found, but backfired with the electorate at large.
Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino polling and policy think tank, said Schwarzenegger's "demagoguery" on the issue during the recall campaign "gave a rebirth to the nut wing, the 187 wing of the Republican Party."
"It's sort of the law of unintended consequences," he said.
After voters booted Davis from office, the Legislature repealed the driver's license law under pressure from Schwarzenegger. But now, the new governor has angered conservatives by agreeing to sign a revised version if it meets his concerns over public safety.
"Unfortunately, it's a policy issue that's difficult for people to discuss with emotional detachment," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman.
This morning, Kaloogian, a former assemblyman from the San Diego suburbs, will hold a rally against the new driver's license measure during the state Republican convention at a hotel in Burlingame, near San Francisco International Airport.
At his side will be Ron Prince, lead sponsor of Proposition 187. Prince's advocacy group, Save Our State, is trying to get a revised version of Proposition 187 on the November ballot. To help gather signatures on the petition for the measure, Kaloogian has drawn on the support network he built last year in the recall drive.
Kaloogian's alliance with Prince might be helpful in the GOP primary, but promises only trouble in a general election race, said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC. To many Latinos, Pachon said, the proposition's author is "the prince of darkness."
"All you have to do for the Latino electorate is associate somebody with 187, and you get almost a sort of knee-jerk, anti-candidate reaction," he said.
Republicans have labored for nearly a decade to repair the fallout from the 1994 election. The racially charged campaign for the ballot measure stained the party's image among Latinos and turned Gov. Pete Wilson into a symbol of divisiveness.
Anger focused primarily on a commercial, run by Wilson in his simultaneous bid for reelection, showing immigrants massed at the Mexican border as an announcer read, "They keep coming."
Californians passed Proposition 187 by a vote of 60% to 40%. But nearly four out of five Latinos opposed it.
In the years that followed, a surge of newly registered Latino voters signed up overwhelmingly as Democrats. And in subsequent elections, Latinos shunned Republicans, with less than one in four backing GOP gubernatorial nominees Dan Lungren in 1998 and Bill Simon Jr. in 2002. Even Bush, who spoke out against Proposition 187, won just 23% of California's Latino vote in the 2000 presidential race.
The first concrete sign of improvement came in the recall, when Schwarzenegger won a significantly higher 32% of Latino votes, according to a Times exit poll.
In an effort to lure Latinos back to the GOP, Republican leaders this year have tried to recruit a more diverse field of candidates. In the state Senate, where all 15 Republicans are white men, they hope Assemblyman Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria will win a seat this year.
In the U.S. Senate race, supporters of a moderate Kaloogian rival, former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, say her background as an immigrant from Mexico could help the party in the November race against incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer.
"We have to bend over backwards to be supportive of Hispanic candidates and Asian candidates and black candidates who share our values, and there's lots of them," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). "Rosario's the best example of that."
He added: "If Republicans are going to be successful in the future, we have to be getting a very solid share of the Mexican American vote, and that really hasn't happened since Ronald Reagan."
But Schwarzenegger, who often invokes his own upbringing in Austria as a way to build ties with fellow immigrants, has bypassed Marin, endorsing former California Secretary of State Bill Jones instead. Jones' more conservative stands on abortion and other matters may play well in the primary but pose difficulties in a race against Boxer.
On illegal immigration, Jones has tried to take a tough stand without offending Schwarzenegger or Bush, both of whose support would be crucial in the general election. Jones opposes driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, but rarely broaches the topic unless asked about it.
He has declined to take a stand on Bush's immigration proposal, calling it just a "framework" for reforms and sticking to a general statement against "amnesty" for undocumented workers.
Jones' cautiousness has left an opening for Kaloogian, who has used talk radio as his main forum for denouncing the Bush and Schwarzenegger proposals.
On KSFO-AM in San Francisco this week, Kaloogian promoted his plan to bar wire transfers of money abroad without proof of legal status in the United States, saying the proposal would encourage illegal immigrants to go home.
"We have to find ways to remove the benefits of being here illegally for the illegal aliens that are here," he said.
Melanie Morgan, host of the radio show, told him: "Aliens are pouring across the border, scrambling to get here as fast as they can."
Kaloogian went on to criticize Jones for saying he was against amnesty for illegal immigrants but refusing to criticize the Bush plan. "This middle-of-the-road stuff is a mistake," he said.
"When you win with me," Kaloogian added, "you'll never have to ask, 'What did we win?' "