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CAMPAIGN 2008 - Republican hopefuls are flexing - Houston Chronicle

(TX) - December 8, 2007 - page 20


December 8, 2007 | Houston Chronicle (TX) | MICHELLE MITTELSTADT, Washington Bureau | Page 20

WASHINGT ON - With the first presidential contests less than a month away and the race in a state
of flux, most Republican contenders are competing to see who can be more muscular in their
opposition to illegal immigration.

Regardless of their past views on border security and illegal immigration, the candidates are in the
words of T om T ancredo - who is running hard on anti-immigration issues - trying to "out-
T ancredo T ancredo."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani repeatedly have
traded jabs, in increasingly personal terms, over who was more lax in dealing with illegal immigrants
while in office.

Romney, whose leads in Iowa and New Hampshire have been shrinking, also has gone after two
candidates who have been making gains in those early contests, former Arkansas Gov. Mike
Huckabee and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

In the second tier of GOP hopefuls, T ancredo, Duncan Hunter and Fred T hompson have centered
much of their campaigns on their plans to crack down on illegal immigration.

Even Ron Paul, the T exas congressman who spends much of his time on the campaign trail telling
voters how he'd get government out of their lives, is pledging a more robust federal response.

Boycotting debate

T hough only a fraction of Americans identify illegal immigration as their most pressing concern,
the issue has gained an outsized importance in the GOP primary as candidates scramble for favor
with a conservative base deeply troubled by the nation's porous borders.

T he topic is sure to be a major focus of the next Republican debate, scheduled for Sunday night in
Miami.

T he debate, sponsored by the Spanish-language network Univision, will feature every GOP
candidate but T ancredo, who is boycotting because he contends it undercuts the message that
immigrants need to learn English.

T he dominance of immigration in the Republican contest was in evidence during the Nov. 28
CNN/YouT ube debate, which sizzled with attacks and counterattacks by Giuliani and Romney -
such as when Giuliani accused his rival of living in a "sanctuary mansion."
But an inconvenient fact for the Romney and Giuliani campaigns is that both men were significantly
more immigration-friendly while in office.

Romney often highlights New York's status as a haven for illegal immigrants during Giuliani's
administration, while the ex-mayor has countered that Romney did nothing to deter sanctuary
cities in his own state.

Now, both men denounce this year's Senate bill, backed by President Bush, that would have placed
millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.

However, both were supportive of similar legislation when it first came up in 2006.

A moderate minority

T hompson, a former T ennessee senator, also previously spoke more favorably about bringing the
estimated 12 million illegal immigrants into legal standing in society. And in contrast to his tough
rhetoric now, while he was in the Senate T hompson favored increasing visa quotas for high-skilled
foreigners and seasonal agricultural workers.

Even McCain, a prominent drafter of the Senate bill, hardened his stance after dipping dramatically
in the polls and fundraising amid a conservative rebellion over his support for the legislation.

Still, he and Huckabee are the only two GOP candidates who try at times to soften the debate's
harder edges. While Huckabee supports giving illegal immigrant children access to in-state college
tuition, he unveiled an enforcement-heavy immigration platform.

For most of the Republican contenders, they can't be too tough on those illegally in the United
States.

T ancredo, the Colorado congressman, who forced the issue to his party's consciousness, has
aired two television ads linking terrorism and gang violence to illegal immigration.

T he sharp-edged rhetoric and the candidates' changed positions have stunned Frank Sharry,
executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which is lobbying for illegal immigrants'
legalization.

"It's like watching a slow-motion car wreck that you can't believe is happening," said Sharry, who
argues the GOP is harming itself for the long run with Latino voters and independents in pursuit of
votes. Some prominent Republicans say they worry that the tenor of the debate could prove risky
and be interpreted as anti-Hispanic.

"My suggestion to those engaging in the Republican primary battle is to be very careful that you
don't give the wrong impression by either how you talk about it or the tone you use," said Sen. John
Cornyn, R-T exas. "It can quickly get out of hand if you're not careful."

A softer stance to come?


T exas advertising executive Lionel Sosa, a Republican who is supporting Democratic candidate Bill
Richardson, argues the eventual GOP nominee will temper his stance on immigration during the
general election.

"T he Republicans have to court their base if they want to be nominated," Sosa said. "After one of
them becomes the nominee, I can almost guarantee that the position will be softer and they are
counting on the fact that by then the disappointment that Latinos are feeling with Republicans will
be largely a thing of the past."

HISPANICS RET URN T O DEMOCRAT IC PART Y

A new Pew Hispanic Center poll finds that Latino voters are returning to the Democratic fold after
several years of drift toward the GOP. Some 57 percent of Hispanic voters now label themselves
Democrats, compared with 23 percent aligned with the Republican Party. T hat 34-percentage
point Democratic edge has jumped from last year's 21-percentage point difference.

T he Rev. Luis Cortes, a prominent Hispanic evangelical leader often allied with the Bush
administration, joined Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean on a conference
call with reporters to warn that Hispanics were offended by the tenor of the GOP contest. "T he
rhetoric of making villains of Hispanic people seems to be getting stronger," Cortes said, hinting
his GOP-friendly network of evangelical churches could turn from the Republican Party.
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