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Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is staking out a position on illegal immigration that is more conservative than President Bush, a strategy that supporters and detractors alike see as a way for the New York Democrat to shake the "liberal" label and appeal to traditionally Republican states.
Mrs. Clinton -- who is tagged as a liberal because of her plan for nationalized health care and various remarks during her husband's presidency -- is taking an increasingly vocal and hard-line stance on an issue that ranks among the highest concerns for voters, particularly Republicans.
"Bush has done everything he can to leave the doors wide open," said Robert Kunst, president of HillaryNow.com, a group dedicated to drafting Mrs. Clinton to run for president. "Hillary is the only one taking a position on immigration. She will win that issue hands down."
In an interview last month on Fox News, Mrs. Clinton said she does not "think that we have protected our borders or our ports or provided our first responders with the resources they need, so we can do more and we can do better."
In an interview on WABC radio, she said: "I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants."
"Clearly, we have to make some tough decisions as a country, and one of them ought to be coming up with a much better entry-and-exit system so that if we're going to let people in for the work that otherwise would not be done, let's have a system that keeps track of them," she said.
Unlike many pro-business Republicans, Mrs. Clinton also has castigated Americans for hiring illegal aliens.
"People have to stop employing illegal immigrants," she said. "I mean, come up to Westchester, go to Suffolk and Nassau counties, stand on the street corners in Brooklyn or the Bronx. You're going to see loads of people waiting to get picked up to go do yard work and construction work and domestic work."
In contrast, Mr. Bush backs a guest-worker program that allows foreign citizens entry into the United States and an eventual path to citizenship. One of the president's first acts after his re-election was to push for it again, before both domestic and foreign audiences.
Mrs. Clinton's position has been noticed by Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and leading proponent of stricter immigration controls.
"She's not a dumb woman," Tancredo spokesman Carlos Espinoza said. "She's got a great liberal base, and she realizes there's no better way to draw in more conservative voters. She has really come out to the forefront on that."
With the vast majority of Americans in polls viewing illegal immigration as a serious problem, Mrs. Clinton also could make deep inroads in the conservative red states, especially those in the South that the Democrats have largely written off in recent presidential campaigns.
As the immigration issue has entered the debate over national security, the New York senator -- representing the state hardest hit by the September 11 attacks -- is uniquely positioned to take a firm stance on the issue, to the delight of some conservatives.
"More than any other leader of either political party, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton has been focusing on immigration reform and border security -- taking hard-line positions that appeal to frustrated Republicans in a move that could guarantee her enough support in red states to win the White House in 2008," conservative author Carl Limbacher wrote recently on NewsMax.com, which has chronicled many of Mrs. Clinton's statements on immigration.
Mr. Espinoza said the former first lady has become particularly vocal on the issue during and after the November election, in which Democrats performed so poorly.
"I think she's realizing how much this issue has grown since 9/11," he said. "If you talked about it before then, you were just a flat-out racist. Now it's this huge issue."
Moving to the right of even some Republicans, the former first lady told WABC she favors "at least a visa ID, some kind of entry-and-exit ID. And ... perhaps, although I'm not a big fan of it, we might have to move towards an ID system even for citizens."
Jennifer Duffy with the Cook Political Report said a conservative stance on immigration would be wise in the event Mrs. Clinton runs for president in 2008.
"Democrats are asking if it's really smart to nominate another Northeastern Democrat, and she is a Northeastern Democrat," she said. "It's probably smart to blur that perception a little."
But not everyone sees it as a wise a move.
"I think she is trying to move to the right, and immigration is one of the ways she is using to do it," said political strategist Dick Morris, who has a history of working with former President Clinton.
"I think this is a particularly misguided choice on her part, however, since two-thirds of Bush's margin this time was due to his closure of the Democratic margin of victory among Hispanics."
Mr. Bush lost the vote of Hispanics -- many of whom are wary of tougher immigration laws -- by only 10 percentage points this year, whereas he lost it by 20 percentage points four years ago, Mr. Morris said.
Mr. Kunst, whose Web site supporting Mrs. Clinton got thousands of hits daily right after Mr. Bush's re-election, said Mrs. Clinton is now the strongest Democrat for 2008 in terms of both popularity and financing.
Immigration is a good issue for her even as, he hopes, she holds onto her liberal credentials.
"It's not just about cheap labor anymore," Mr. Kunst said. "It's about security. We have to do something about it."
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