WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidates are likely to sound similar Thursday night at their Las Vegas debate when they discuss illegal immigration — if they talk much about it at all.
They all pretty much call for tougher border enforcement and providing a path to citizenship, but they've been downplaying the issue for months, even though it's one of the hottest controversies in the land.
Democratic analysts say that's a smart strategy. Republicans counter that Democrats are afraid of the issue, which could split the party's liberal wing and Hispanics from its blue-collar supporters.
Independent analysts aren't sure who's right.
"People are torn. They know they need immigrants (to make the economy hum), but many also fear the browning of America," said Ken Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The major Democratic contenders' debate — on CNN at 8 p.m. EST — take place in a crucial early-voting caucus state where undocumented workers are a major concern. Yet Democratic campaigns aren't jumping at the chance to highlight immigration. They're more eager to emphasize issues that they think are higher on their voters' agendas, notably health care, education, the war on terrorism and the economy.
Democratic campaigns also are calculating that once the party nominations are decided, probably early next year, their party's detailed, comprehensive approaches to giving undocumented aliens a path to citizenship will look good next to Republicans' demands simply to get ultra-tough with anyone who's in the country illegally.
"Republicans should be terrified," said Simon Rosenberg, the president of the New Democrat Network. "The positions most of their candidates are taking now will make it very difficult for them to win the presidency."
Republicans counter that it's Democrats who should be frightened.
"Look at how all the Republicans, except for John McCain, are talking tough. That's because they've been on the trail and are talking to folks," said Alan Moore, the press secretary for Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., whose White House bid is built around his get-tough-with-immigrants proposals.
Democrats are making two political calculations on immigration.
One is that their comprehensive, arguably more tolerant approach will help woo Hispanic voters, who could make up an estimated 10 percent of next year's electorate. They've been straying on the presidential level for the past two elections. President Bush, a former Texas governor, appealed not only to regional pride but also to Hispanics' deep desire for education restructuring, and won about 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.
Democrats think the GOP will be fortunate to get half that next year, not only because polls show that much of the Hispanic community is disillusioned with Bush but also because the tough Republican immigration talk is often seen as anti-Hispanic, said Maria Echaveste, a senior adviser to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
"Immigration is the main reason for the reversal of the Republican gains" among Hispanic voters, Rosenberg contended.
Not so, countered Ira Mehlman, the spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit group that advocates a hard line against undocumented aliens.
"Most people see immigration as affecting all of those other issues like education and the economy," Mehlman said, so the Republican approach has potential with Hispanics.
The other calculation by Democrats is that bringing up immigration can only hurt them at the moment, because it isn't easy to explain comprehensive action during a quick-answer debate.
Republicans could be right: When people think about immigration, most now want an iron fist, not talking points. In Ohio, for instance, a Nov. 6-11 Quinnipiac University poll found that strong majorities favor building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, creating national ID cards for all legal residents and refusing driver's licenses and free public education to illegal aliens.
A Democratic debate Oct. 30 illustrated how volatile the issue can be, as Clinton was asked whether she backed New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, a plan that he dropped earlier this week.
Clinton was sympathetic to Spitzer's plan but stopped short of endorsing it, drawing sharp criticism from her rivals and the news media.
"The perception of Clinton was that she was trying to have it both ways," said David Mermin, a Democratic pollster.
She later endorsed the plan, only to backpedal on Wednesday, saying in a statement that she now opposed such licenses. Will her handling of the issue ultimately hurt her? Probably not in the primaries, the experts said, because at the moment the immigration issue isn't that big a deal in Democratic circles.
If it were, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would be primed to emerge as the star of Thursday night's debate.
Richardson often talks of how he declared a state of emergency over illegal immigration in August 2005 in four counties along his state's border with Mexico, but opposes building any kind of border fence.
So far, though, he's languished in polls, further evidence to Democrats that immigration is an issue that they can mumble about for now.
Thursday night, they'll probably all renew their calls for paths to citizenship and tough border enforcement. They'll pledge allegiance to the kind of program offered by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who backs a system that, as he put it, "allows undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, learn English, not violate the law and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens."
And they'll all hope that Republicans are seen as shrill reactionaries.
It could be the biggest gamble of the election year. As Rosenberg put it, "It's a hard issue."
ON THE WEB
For more information on the Quinnipiac poll of Ohio, go to http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x271.xml. Click on "Ohio" at left and then on the "Nov. 13, 2007" link.