President Bush — regarded by many conservatives as too soft on illegal immigration from Mexico — is benefiting from the perception that John Kerry is even softer, Bush strategists say.
“Senator Kerry in the last debate came out in favor of full citizenship for illegal aliens — amnesty, essentially — for illegal aliens,” said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “That’s hurting him in states like Wisconsin and Iowa and Nevada and Colorado.”
Although Mr. Bush was leading in those states by an average of about four percentage points on Friday, the Kerry campaign said it was not because of the immigration issue.
“I see absolutely no evidence of the president making any gains on this issue in those states,” said Kerry pollster Stanley Greenberg.
Mr. Greenberg said the Bush campaign was raising the issue to offset the president’s weak performance concerning the question of immigration in the final presidential debate. The pollster pointed out that Mr. Bush announced plans to relax immigration regulations shortly after taking office, only to shelve the plans after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“The president raised a proposal, never submitted it again, and had this flip-flopping, ambiguous position on the issue, and did not score points on the immigration issue,” he said.
“But John Kerry was very strong on the homeland-security issue and the need to secure our borders and did very well on that issue,” he added.
During the debate, Mr. Bush defended his immigration policy by characterizing Mr. Kerry’s as more lax.
“I don’t believe we ought to have amnesty,” the president said at Arizona State University. “I don’t think we ought to reward illegal behavior.”
He added: “Here is where my opponent and I differ. In September 2003, he supported amnesty for illegal aliens.”
Mr. Kerry, who shares Mr. Bush’s aversion to the word “amnesty,” defended his immigration proposal.
“We need an earned-legalization program for people who have been here for a long time, stayed out of trouble, got a job, paid their taxes, and their kids are American,” he said. “We’ve got to start moving them toward full citizenship, out of the shadows.”
But the Massachusetts Democrat also tried to position himself as tougher on illegal immigrants than Mr. Bush. Mr. Kerry criticized the president for not using state-of-the-art security measures, such as iris-identification technology.
“The borders are more leaking today than they were before 9/11,” he said. “The fact is, we haven’t done what we need to do to toughen up our borders, and I will.”
Mr. Bush called that “an outrageous claim.”
“To say that the borders are not as protected as they were prior to September the 11th shows he doesn’t know the borders,” he said. “They’re much better protected today than they were when I was the governor of Texas.”
Bush advisers denied that the president wants to naturalize illegal aliens.
“There is a guest-worker program,” Mr. Gillespie said on CNBC. “But not to confer citizenship.
“In fact, [Mr. Bush] was attacked by the liberals for not allowing them to have amnesty,” he added. “But John Kerry made clear that he is in favor of full citizenship for illegal immigrants. And I’m telling you, in these battleground states like Colorado and Nevada, and Iowa, Wisconsin and others, that’s a real problem for him.”