EXETER, N.H. — Immigration is the issue that Republican conservatives in this state want most to talk about, complain about and probably vote about.
The topic keeps coming up across the nation's first primary state. In bucolic Exeter, high school senior Allison Franklin asked about immigration during a Q&A session last week with Mitt Romney. In Hooksett, Bob Sweeney discussed it at a campaign gathering at a friend's home.
Shannon McGinley, a Bedford homemaker and determined anti-abortion activist, found as she went to campaign events that immigration "is something that's right up there" with abortion this year for conservatives.
At first glance, rage over illegal immigration would seem out of place in a state where fall seems a gentle time to enjoy brisk breezes, engage in chatter about the Red Sox and Patriots, and while away hours on town greens that are turning yellow, red and brown.
But peer a bit deeper and it's easy to see that immigration is exploding as a major issue — possibly the major issue — in a wide-open Republican presidential primary race.
"For Republicans, it's becoming a litmus test of how conservative you are," said Wayne Lesperance, associate professor of political science at New England College in Hennicker, N.H.
"Absolutely, it's become an important issue," added Andrew E. Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire's Granite State Poll.
He noted that Arizona Sen. John McCain's troubles have stemmed partly from his so far unsuccessful efforts to craft an immigration compromise that would put undocumented aliens on a path to citizenship. Disdain for that initiative is widespread among Republicans nationwide, including here.
Many Republican candidates are pledging with clenched jaws to protect America's borders at all costs.
That's a switch for some.
In the 1990s, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani defended immigration as good and necessary for New York's economy, and once said it was impossible to defend U.S. borders anyway.
Now the Republican front-runner says it can and should be done. He proposes creating a national database of noncitizens and issuing tamper-proof biometric ID cards to all noncitizen workers and students.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, want to withhold federal money from cities and states that don't report illegal aliens, to toughen border security and to expedite the process of sending undocumented aliens home.
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo's campaign is built almost entirely on a platform of getting tough with the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
The issue resonates because it touches so many bases.
"There's the issue of economic fairness," Smith said, "the idea that people can lose their jobs because of this."
That's part of what worries Sweeney, a granite artisan in Hooksett. His is a specialized craft, and he lamented how "they're coming in here and taking jobs away from Americans, and it's directly affecting people in my field."
Rick Christie, a retired government official from Goffstown, voiced the same complaint.
"I'm a conservative. I'm against abortion, but this is the biggest issue right now," he said. "I am against amnesty."
He cited the potential burden on the social service and education systems, saying, "I want my tax money to go to Americans."
The immigration debate has other tentacles: It's also about safety, security and the cultural frictions that arise when newcomers fail to speak English and assimilate into local culture.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there were 10,000 to 30,000 illegal immigrants in New Hampshire in 2005. They're not invisible. New Ipswich Police Chief Garrett Chamberlain got national attention three years ago when, during routine traffic stops, he discovered some people weren't here legally, and charged them with trespassing.
New Ipswich, near the Massachusetts border, is a town of about 5,000 people, mostly white, that rarely sees violent crime, but the chief thought that cracking down on illegals would help keep crime contained.
"In smaller states, it doesn't take that much for people to notice it," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that's fighting illegal immigration. "The smaller the town, the more evident it becomes," because the cultural differences stand out.
All this has spawned some backlash. Chamberlain's efforts drew strong criticism from labor officials and the state's American Civil Liberties Union. At least two New Hampshire Democratic lawmakers are pushing legislation to bar state and local officials from enforcing federal immigration laws.
In Exeter, Franklin, a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy, raised the issue with Romney at a town meeting.
Franklin said she was originally from California, and wanted Romney to understand that immigration wasn't as simple as it seemed.
Illegals sometimes help the economy, she said.
Romney explained that while he welcomes legal immigration, "illegal immigration has to end."
Franklin wasn't impressed; she called his views "so intellectually dangerous."
She's not speaking for the Republican majority, apparently, as candidates take tough stands.
Tancredo jumped in last month, appearing with Chamberlain in Concord to warn that New Hampshire would become a "sanctuary state" if it passed the measure prohibiting enforcement of anti-immigration laws.
Romney blasts Giuliani for flip-flopping on the issue; 11 years ago, Giuliani told a Massachusetts audience: ""We're never ever going to be able to totally control immigration to a country that is as large as ours."
Today Giuliani promises crowds that "we can end illegal immigration." He says improvements in technology make border control more feasible.
It's not clear which Republican will win New Hampshire's primary, but it is clear that whoever does will take a strong stand against illegal immigration, because that's what state conservatives want.
"This is the biggest issue around, because you have two distinct views," Chamberlain said. "You have those who believe in secure borders and maintaining the rule of law, and those who don't. And most traditional Americans believe in the process of coming in the front door."
REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES ON IMMIGRATION
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani:
— Issue tamper-proof biometric ID cards to all noncitizen students and workers.
— Create a single national database of noncitizens in the United States.
— Require new citizens to read, write and speak English.
— Quote: "You stop illegal immigration by building a fence, a physical fence and then a technological fence."
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson:
— Increase enforcement against undocumented workers and their employers.
— Cut off federal money to any community that serves as a "sanctuary" for illegal immigrants.
— Double the number of immigration agents and significantly increase the number of Border Patrol agents.
— Quote: "It (his plan) is strong on enforcement and it basically addresses what needs to be our commitment, and that is to secure the borders and enforce the law."
Arizona Sen. John McCain:
— Provide a path to citizenship for many undocumented aliens after they go through a complex series of steps.
— Tighten border security for people and also cargo coming into ports.
— Quote: "As president, I will secure the border." Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee:
— Tighten border security by deploying 23,000 more agents, building 700 miles of fence and erecting 105 radar and camera towers.
— Prosecute "to the full extent of the law" any illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
— Create a process to allow people who perform jobs "unfilled by our citizens" to work.
— Quote: "We can't turn the tide until we stem the tide. We need to know who is coming into our country, where they are going and why they are here."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul:
— Bar tax revenues as payment for illegal immigrants' use of hospitals, clinics, schools, roads and other social services.
— Track visa holders and deport anyone who overstays his or her visa or violates U.S. law.
— Quote: "A nation without secure borders is no nation at all. It makes no sense to fight terrorists abroad when our own front door is left unlocked."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney:
— Withhold federal money from states and cities that don't comply with federal immigration laws.
— Implement a mandatory biometric tamper-proof ID and job-verification system.
— Quote: "We need to make America more attractive for legal immigrants — for citizens — and less attractive for illegal immigrants."
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo:
— Strictly enforce immigration laws, including deporting any illegal aliens.
— Bar any "guest worker" program, since that would reward illegal immigrants.
— Quote: "If they haven't figured out which country they're going to be attached to here or which one they owe their loyalty, I would suggest they go back to whatever country they hold the other citizenship in until they figure it out."
California Rep. Duncan Hunter:
— Finish building a double-layered security fence across major smuggling corridors on the U.S.-Mexico border.
— Strengthen border control and immigration enforcement.
— Quote: "Amnesty is not the answer. Border enforcement must come first and it must be comprehensive. To do otherwise is to repeat the mistakes of the past."