SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Immigration is a dominant issue in congressional races from Arizona to Michigan to Pennsylvania — just about everywhere but where President Bush is on the campaign trail.
After having pressed all year to get a broad immigration bill, including legal status for illegal aliens from Congress, Mr. Bush now ignores the issue at campaign events and fundraisers, and Vice President Dick Cheney has even dropped what used to be a regular reference to immigration from his campaign stump speech.
It’s an odd mixed message, given that many Republicans are running heavily — and in some cases almost exclusively — on the issue, promising an enforcement-first approach and attacking Democrats for supporting citizenship for illegal aliens.
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said they think the election will be decided on other issues.
“While immigration is an important issue, this election is also about the philosophical choices facing voters this November when it comes to national security and keeping taxes low,” Mrs. Perino said.
She added that Mr. Bush has been consistent in pushing for a broad approach “because he believes that that is the only way to solve any of the individual immigration reform bills.”
But most Republicans in Congress disagree, preferring an enforcement-first approach, of which the border fence is crucial.
One incumbent locked in a tight battle for re-election, Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, said the issue is a no-brainer and pointed to the House vote last month on a provision making it illegal to tunnel under the border.
“In the midst of a contentious election season, despite great wailing and gnashing of teeth, when that bill was offered as a stand-alone provision the final vote was 422-to-nothing. That means every congressman in every district understands the primacy of enforcement,” Mr. Hayworth said.
Still, immigration is complicated for Republicans.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has criticized some Democrats for their support of the same Senate bill that 23 Republicans supported. That also puts them at odds with Mr. Bush, who labeled that legislation a “good immigration bill.”
But Republicans across the country see it as a way to rally conservative voters and to win over some Democrats and independents.
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican, repeatedly has turned to the issue to attack his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey Jr..
“Bobby Casey Jr. has been doing anything and everything in an attempt to deceive and distract voters from the fact that he supports amnesty for illegal immigrants,” said Mr. Santorum’s campaign manager, Vince Galko.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican who has come to symbolize the House’s enforcement-only position, said Republicans should use the immigration issue “as often as possible.”