December 27, 2007

Will Immigration Provide The Key?

Two candidates, two evolving approaches to immigration. Can either catch the imagination of Republican primary voters? Mike Huckabee and John McCain have tried retooling their message on one of the biggest issues for voters in this election, and their success depends on how well they can communicate the changes in their positions:

While governor, Huckabee gained favor with Hispanic leaders by denouncing a high-profile federal immigration raid and suggesting some anti-illegal immigration measures were driven by racism. He advocated making children of illegal immigrants eligible for college scholarships.

Huckabee's Republican presidential rivals have tried to make an issue of the scholarship plan, portraying him as soft on illegal immigration, an important issue for many GOP voters.

Huckabee responded this month by unveiling a plan to seal the Mexican border, hire more agents to patrol it and make illegal immigrants go home before they could apply to return to this country.

He's also touted the support for his candidacy of the founder of the Minuteman Project, an anti-illegal immigration group whose volunteers watch the Mexican border.

The AP's Andrew DeMillo notices Huckabee's new "tone", as do immigration-rights activists. They say that Huckabee took a different approach while Governor, focusing on broader solutions rather than simple enforcement. In 2005, he opposed requiring proof of citizenship when registering to vote, another Republican hot-button issue. The immigration plan Huckabee put forward in his campaign shows a significant movement towards the conservatives in the party, and the activists don't like it at all.

McCain's transition has been less dramatic. He still believes in comprehensive reform and the principles of the bill that he championed this summer, but now understands that the priorities of it have to change to build support. He pledges to secure the borders separately and first before launching any other initiatives:

"I will secure the border and I would have the border state governors certify that their border are secure," he said, "Then, we would move onto other issues," such as what to do about those illegal immigrants already in the country.

He hasn't exactly renounced the bill he championed in the spring, but he has fine-tuned his position and changed the emphasis to assure the skeptics and critics -- and there are many -- that dealing with the fate of those already in the country only occurs after the borders are secured.

"I still believe we have to have a temporary worker program that works and addresses the issues of the 12 million people that are here illegally," McCain said in Weare, racing through this part of his answer in much the same way announcers do with the disclaimers at the end of pharmaceutical commercials.

Then, more slowly, more emphatically, he added: "But we've got to first secure the borders to assure the American people that if you address the other parts of the issue we will not have another 12 million illegal immigrant come into our country."

Of the two, McCain may have the easier time convincing people, but both will have their share of difficulties. Perhaps even more than on abortion, which most people recognize as an issue on which presidents only have little impact, Republicans are not looking for born-again hardline conservatives. They want a candidate who has consistency on immigration and border security.

Unfortunately, they're not finding it among the current front-runners, which give both Huckabee and even McCain -- the bete noir of the GOP on this issue as late as July -- a chance to make a case for conversion. Both men have records at odds with the mainstream of their party. McCain, having been in the national spotlight on it much more than Huckabee, cannot make the kind of shift that Huckabee did without losing all credibility, even if he wanted to do so, and he obviously doesn't.

Can either or both men reach an accommodation with Republicans on this issue? Or will other issues, such as the BCRA and Huckabee's populism, act as an anchor on their ascent?


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