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GOP Immigration Tactic: Blast Away, but Be Nice

Times Staff Writers

Hoping to use the volatile issue of illegal immigration to avert a November election disaster, Republican candidates across the country increasingly are attacking their Democratic opponents on the subject.

But mindful of a possible voter backlash, they are attempting to do so without seeming intolerant or divisive.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Rick Santorum has launched an ad accusing his challenger of favoring amnesty for people in the country illegally and giving them “preference over American workers.” Rep. Bob Beauprez criticizes his Democratic opponent in the Colorado governor’s race for supporting state benefits for illegal immigrants. In the Chicago suburbs, congressional hopeful David McSweeney is attacking Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean on immigration -- even though she voted in favor of the crackdown bill that passed the House in December.

Immigration is a tricky issue for Republicans, and there are deep divisions in the party over what policy and strategy to pursue.

Many blame former California Gov. Pete Wilson’s backing in 1994 of anti-illegal-immigrant Proposition 187 for alienating Latinos nationwide.

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In California, it sparked a wave of Latino political activism that hurt the GOP’s political standing -- a blow from which the party has yet to fully recover.

Still, Republican strategists have “made a decision that, whatever the risk, this is simply a very bad year and the issue is too hot not to put it in the quiver,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based independent pollster.

The stepped-up Republican assault comes as House GOP leaders began a nationwide series of hearings last week bashing the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill, which they have branded the “Kennedy-Reid” bill -- focusing on two prominent Democratic supporters while ignoring the lead Republican sponsor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

The linguistic dodge reflects the wide split in the GOP over two competing approaches to immigration. President Bush and pro-business Republicans favor a guest worker program and path to citizenship contained in a bill approved by the Senate.

The president reiterated his support for a guest worker program Friday during a press conference in Chicago. “To enforce this border, we’ve got to have a rational way that recognizes there are people sneaking across to do work Americans aren’t doing,” he said.

But hard-liners in the party back the tough measures contained in the House’s enforcement-only legislation and fiercely oppose the president’s guest worker approach.

The official GOP position is that the party will not use immigration as a political bludgeon against Democrats. Karl Rove, the president’s chief political advisor, has made courting Latinos a priority through his years in the White House and has avoided the harsh rhetoric used to rally partisans on other issues.

“It’s extremely important that our party be a party of principle, which is to say we’re a pro-law enforcement and pro-immigrant party,” said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, who worked alongside Rove in Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

Still, many Republicans hope a tough-on-illegal-immigration platform can help overcome the political drag of an unpopular president and growing public sentiment against the war in Iraq in November’s midterm election.

“That is voiced around here often,” Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a House leader in the immigration debate, said in a telephone interview from the Capitol. “The plates have shifted politically, and if you want to get elected, you better not be perceived as being soft on illegal immigration.”

Democrats say the GOP assault comes at the party’s own peril, especially with immigration bills stalled by infighting in Washington.

“Republicans have signaled they’re going to run a single-issue campaign on an issue on which they ultimately don’t have a single accomplishment,” scoffed Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In some states, Democrats are more hawkish on illegal immigration than their GOP rivals. In Nebraska, for instance, Sen. Ben Nelson is running to the right of his Republican challenger, who backs Bush’s proposed guest worker program.

But analysts say the immigration issue could be most potent in the hands of Republicans, who traditionally are associated with a tougher stance against lawbreaking.

“The focus in Washington has been almost exclusively on the risk among Republicans,” said Amy Walter, who tracks congressional races for Washington’s nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “But there are also Democrats, especially Democrats in conservative-leaning districts, who may also have to find themselves distancing themselves from the national party.”

With the election four months away and several key states still conducting primaries, the shape of the fall contests is evolving. In some places, including California, immigration does not seem to be as significant in the major statewide contests. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his challenger, Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides, show no sign of making it a campaign wedge issue.

Republicans were encouraged last month, though, when their candidate for California’s 50th Congressional District, Brian Bilbray, won with a tough-on-illegal-immigration platform in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

But in an example of the issue’s treacherous terrain, efforts by Tancredo and other hard-liners to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Chris Cannon in Utah failed a few weeks later. Cannon, who supports a guest worker program but also voted for the House bill, won 56% of the vote June 27 in a state that prides itself on welcoming newcomers.

In Colorado, illegal immigration has become a defining issue in both the gubernatorial race and in statehouse contests. The state Supreme Court last month removed from the November ballot a proposed initiative to ban state services to illegal immigrants.

The state’s termed-out Republican governor, Bill Owens, has called a special session of the Legislature to pass a ban on services such as the one called for in the initiative -- or to put it back on the ballot in November. Democrats objected but, under intense political pressure, eventually agreed to a compromise agenda and started the session Thursday.

Bill Ritter, the Democratic nominee for governor, opposed the ballot initiative and spoke against the special session. His opponent, Beauprez, seized on that in his first radio ad: “It’s an outrage, isn’t it?” Beauprez says in the spot. “When our own government refuses to enforce our laws against illegal immigration

In an interview, Beauprez said it was logical to talk about illegal immigration. “It’s the top issue for everyone,” he said.

Ritter has struck back, accusing Beauprez of being part of the logjam in the Capitol that has allowed problems to fester. “This has been a failure on the part of Washington, D.C.,” Ritter said in an interview. He added that his role model on the issue was none other than Bush. “The person I’m closest to on this is the president of the United States,” Ritter said, underscoring the paradox the issue often presents.

Bush’s agreement with many Democrats on a guest worker program and on finding a way to legalize the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country makes it tougher for party hard-liners to draw contrasts in the fall. “It makes brand distinction more difficult,” said Tancredo.

Some Republicans say they’re trying to be careful so they don’t offend legal immigrants as they go after those here illegally.

“The language that has been used in the past ... turned off people in the Hispanic community,” said McSweeney, a Republican investment banker challenging Bean in Illinois’ 8th Congressional District. “As a party, we need to make sure we’re being inclusive and framing this issue as law and order, not some kind of measure to keep out of this country just a certain group of people.”

McSweeney has attacked Bean for taking varying stands on immigration. The Bean campaign rejects that assertion, saying she has been consistent and contending that the challenger has been taking procedural votes in Congress out of context.

In Pennsylvania, Santorum’s first TV ad stresses that his grandparents were legal Italian immigrants, then decries illegal immigration.

In a separate radio spot, he bashes his Democratic challenger, Bob Casey, for supporting the Senate immigration bill. “How liberal has Casey become?” the ad asks. Santorum voted against the bill.

“There’s a huge contrast between Sen. Santorum and his opponent on this issue, and Pennsylvania citizens deserve to know that,” said Virginia Davis, a campaign spokeswoman.

Larry Smar, a spokesman for Casey, contended that Santorum is trying to exploit an issue he’s rarely talked about or acted upon. “Santorum was pretty quiet on illegal immigration until the Senate vote,” he said.

Recently, Santorum made a point of dropping by a Philadelphia cheesesteak stand made famous for hanging a sign demanding that all customers speak English.

Riccardi reported from Denver and Barabak from San Francisco. Times staff writers Robert Salladay in Sacramento and Nicole Gaouette in Washington contributed to this report.


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