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Immigration debate puts up a wall in the GOP

Times Staff Writer

The roiling congressional debate over a plan to legalize undocumented immigrants has rekindled a bitter fight in the Republican Party over the best strategy to restore the GOP to political dominance -- with each side accusing the other of following a course that would destroy the party for decades.

The clash has grown increasingly intense in recent days, drawing in the most senior figures in Republican politics. President Bush aimed unusually pointed language Thursday at critics, many in his own party, who opposed a more permanent status for illegal immigrants.

Two conservative senators were booed by Republican crowds in their home states last week for endorsing the legalization effort. And conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh attacked the Bush-backed plan as the “Destroy the Republican Party Act.”

On Friday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tied his presidential campaign more tightly to the view that a welcoming immigration policy would boost the GOP in important swing states as he scheduled a June 4 address on the plan in immigrant-rich Miami and attacked his leading rivals for opposing the measure.

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At issue are not just different approaches to immigration but competing visions for how to rebuild and maintain a base of loyal Republican voters.

Many Republican strategists and Bush allies blame election defeats last year in part on the loss of Latino voters after a flurry of anti-illegal immigration ads that strategists say exploited ethnic stereotypes. They say Republicans cannot hope to win a national majority without substantial support from the fast-growing Latino voting bloc.

“I believe that not to play this card right would be the destruction of our party,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), the Cuban-born general chairman of the Republican National Committee, who helped write Senate legislation creating a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. “Hispanics make up about 13% of our country and by 2020 will be closer to 20%. It is a demographic trend that one cannot overlook.”

Directing his criticism squarely at Limbaugh, Martinez added, “He has emotion on his side, but I think I have logic on mine.”

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But conservatives and many opinion leaders argue that backing the immigration bill is a dangerous course because it angers the GOP’s mostly white base, as well as swing voters open to the message of national security and law enforcement.

Some argue that new citizens may be more likely to vote Democratic, so strategically it makes little sense to increase their numbers. Limbaugh, with an estimated 13 million listeners each week, described the Senate legislation as Democrats “getting a brand new electorate, reshaping it and being able to win election after election after election.”

A public spat such as this would have been unheard of three years ago, when Limbaugh and others like him teamed with the White House and Republican National Committee to reelect Bush and build a network designed to ensure long-term dominance.

Even when running for Texas governor in the mid-1990s, Bush and his political aides worked to forge stronger ties to Latinos, the country’s fastest-growing minority. They continued that effort during Bush’s two presidential races, waging a sophisticated, bilingual campaign that many credit with helping the GOP make inroads into a constituency that had been moving to the Democrats.

Now, some party strategists fear the effort will end, whether or not Congress approves an immigration overhaul. They point to high emotions stirred up by the legislation, and note that all of the GOP’s major presidential contenders except McCain are saying the measure may be too soft on illegal immigrants.

“We are at a crossroads in our country and, yes, in our political party,” said Rudy Fernandez, a former deputy to White House strategist Karl Rove and one of the GOP’s chief architects of Latino outreach.

The citizenship plan is part of a bipartisan bill being debated in the Senate. The bill would increase border security and stiffen penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants, a priority for conservatives. But it would offer probationary legal status to illegal workers who were in the U.S. before Jan. 1 of this year, and create a path to citizenship for most of them, provisions that anger many conservatives.

Another contentious provision would permit hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to enter the country temporarily.

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Shortly after senators announced the compromise bill, two top presidential contenders, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, criticized it. Romney called it an “incredible gift” to illegal immigrants and described it as a form of amnesty.

McCain, a key negotiator on the compromise, seemed to be keeping his distance when the deal was announced last week. Now he has decided to tackle the matter head-on, frustrated by what his aides called pandering by his rivals and buoyed by polls showing that a majority of Americans supported a welcoming approach to immigrants.

He directly challenged one leading critic, conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, who warned Thursday of a growing anger among conservatives and a “groundswell of opposition” in the GOP base.

“So I am supposed to gauge my behavior on whether I am booed or not? Please, Sean,” McCain responded during an appearance on the show.

By embracing immigration in Miami, McCain will be staking a claim to a key issue in an early primary state that Giuliani and Romney have made central to their strategies for winning the nomination. Romney and Giuliani have both hired aides to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But the president’s younger brother, whose wife is Mexican American, has expressed dismay about the anti-immigration views held by some in his party.

Aides say McCain, like the president, understands the importance of building ties with Latinos.

“We’re getting close to the point where we will no longer be a national party if we try to define it as a white male, cul-de-sac, gated-community party,” said John Weaver, McCain’s chief strategist.

Some strategists think the GOP field is being pulled to the right in part by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who is not a top-tier candidate but is running as the most prominent anti-illegal immigration member of Congress.

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In an interview, Tancredo accused Bush’s allies of risking the party’s future by ignoring the GOP base. Deflecting criticism that the immigration issue hurt Republican candidates last year, he argued that the party alienated Latinos in 2006 for the same reason it lost support of other voters: the Iraq war, scandals and other administration failings.

“We lost a lot of white males too,” he said.

The grass-roots anger at the party elite was on display last week in Georgia and South Carolina, when Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were heckled by otherwise friendly Republican audiences for their support of the immigration measure. Graham was booed when he mentioned that Bush understood the politics of the issue and performed well among Latinos.

Nationally, exit polls show the GOP share of the Latino vote dropped sharply from an unusually high 40% in 2004 -- the result of intensive outreach by Bush’s campaign -- to 30% in 2006. Democrats see an opportunity to expand their share of the Latino vote, an important bloc in states such as Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado that are expected to be pivotal in the 2008 presidential race.

Surveys compiled by the pro-Democratic group NDN, and not disputed by leading Republican strategists, show that immigration has rocketed from near the bottom to near the top of the list of concerns to Latino voters. More than half, the NDN surveys show, say the issue increases their interest in voting.

Some Republicans in Florida, Texas and Arizona performed well among Latino voters last year. But analysts say the national trend and the tenor of the current debate could spur the kind of realignment that boosted California Democrats after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 embrace of anti-illegal immigration measures.

“Republicans have become a more menacing party to Hispanics over the past year,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the NDN, which has spent millions of dollars targeting Latino voters and documenting the pre-2006 GOP gains.

The tone of the 2006 campaign, along with recent comments by Romney and others, has at least one lifelong Republican questioning his loyalty.

Lionel Sosa worked as a political strategist for Bush, President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. But if the eventual Republican nominee adopts a harsh tone on immigration, Sosa said he would not vote for the candidate.

“Blood runs thicker than politics,” said Sosa, of San Antonio, who is helping organize a fundraiser for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who is Latino. “I’m not saying I would vote for a Democrat. But I’m saying I would not vote for a Republican who opposed immigration reform.”

peter.wallsten@latimes.com


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