Politics & Government

GOP immigration strategy may hurt McCain

A smuggler who goes by the nickname Tacohuayo leads a group of illegal aliens through the border fence erected by the U.S. government in Nogales, Arizona.
A smuggler who goes by the nickname Tacohuayo leads a group of illegal aliens through the border fence erected by the U.S. government in Nogales, Arizona. Kevin G. Hall / MCT

WASHINGTON - Congressional Republicans continue to push a hard line on illegal immigration, even though that could hinder John McCain's efforts to win over Latino voters in November.

Since McCain clinched the Republican presidential nomination earlier this month, conservative Republican senators have introduced a series of tough illegal-immigration measures. In the House of Representatives, immigration hard-liners are trying to force a vote on an enforcement bill, with the support of some conservative Democrats.

McCain has opposed most of his party's hardest stands on illegal-immigration law. Instead, he was a key broker of a bipartisan comprehensive bill that collapsed last year because of grassroots conservative opponents who condemned it as amnesty.

Because of that stand, McCain is well-regarded by many Latinos, the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority, and a key swing voting bloc. McCain's recently modulated his rhetoric by saying that he now supports ensuring that the borders are secure before moving to comprehensive change in immigration law.

At the same time, on the campaign trail, when questioners refer to "illegal aliens," McCain always responds by referring to "illegal immigrants," calling the difference a matter of respect. In one debate, he mentioned the large number of Latino names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

So McCain "is very much respected and loved in the Latino community," said Cecilia Munoz, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino interest group.

But that respect and love could be tested.

"(McCain) does stand to be hurt by everything else that's happening in the Republican Party," Munoz said. "The Republican brand in the community has been very heavily tarnished of late. It's unclear whether John McCain can undo it alone."

Congressional Republicans say they're only doing what the American people want: trying to solve a tough problem.

"There's nothing here that represents an attempt to embarrass him," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said of McCain when introducing his tough measures.

"I don't understand how a bipartisan border security bill in the House would have an impact on the presidential campaign," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Here's how, experts say: The recent immigration-related efforts in Congress likely will only reinforce the perception held by Latinos that most Republicans aren't in their corner. Furthermore, when Republican candidates for lower offices than the presidency stress hard-line immigration stands this fall, that also likely will add to the alienation of Latino voters from the GOP.

"We're looking for an ugly election-year atmosphere, and that's going to make it very difficult for Sen. McCain to distinguish himself from his party," said Tom Snyder, national political director for UNITE HERE!, a trade union with a heavily immigrant membership. The union endorsed Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the Democratic primaries.

Steve Schmidt, a McCain strategist, disputed that, even as he acknowledged the congressional efforts wouldn't help the party with Latinos.

McCain outperforms generic Republican candidates in most polls, including among Latino voters, Schmidt said.

"The reason he's doing that is he's well-known and he's regarded as his own man," Schmidt said. "That's true of Latino voters as well. In the last year, the Republican brand has taken a real hit among Latino voters. McCain's numbers have gone up. There's no reason to think that will change in November."

Latino voters are important, especially in a close race.

Exit polls showed that President Bush won about 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 and 34 percent in 2000, helping him win tight races. In 1996, Bob Dole won only 21 percent of the Latino vote, and lost to Bill Clinton.

In 2006, after Republicans became associated with a tough position on illegal immigration, Latinos voted for Democrats over Republicans by 69 percent to 30 percent. Democrats swept the mid-term elections.

Energized Latinos could count for as many as 11 million voters in 2008, as voter registration drives gear up around the country. In 2004, 7.6 million Latinos voted, accounting for about six percent of all voters.

"There's no question that Republicans need Latinos to be competitive in this election and in the future," said Tamar Jacoby, a conservative Republican who leads ImmigrationWorks USA, which works for immigration law changes at the federal and state levels. "There's also no question that a lot of people in the Republican Party don't understand that."

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