- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

The tricky politics of immigration, an issue once seen as a driving force of the 2008 election, have relegated it to a back-but-hot burner in the presidential campaign debate and paralyzed Congress on the topic.

Both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama support legalizing millions of illegal immigrants, a position that strategists see as crucial to winning over Hispanics.

But Republican and Democratic candidates are also wary of alienating white conservatives and blacks who oppose granting legal status or benefits to people who broke the law to come to the United States, denouncing the idea as amnesty and making the topic virtually untouchable, according to strategists and lawmakers.

“Politicians from both parties are caught between Lou Dobbs voters and Latino voters. Presidential candidates will avoid this issue - both of them - and when they can’t avoid it, they’ll straddle,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a coalition pushing for an immigration overhaul. “It doesn’t pay as an electoral issue.”

Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have spoken of their support during the campaign for an immigration overhaul, but neither has made the issue a major part of his presidential bid. Each has reason to tread carefully.

Mr. McCain’s position is a sore point between him and the conservative Republican Party base. He is caught between shoring up those core constituents and drawing support from Hispanics.

“He’s trying to appeal to one group of voters that hates the other,” said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza.

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said it does not pay for Mr. McCain or Republican congressional candidates to highlight their party’s rift on the issue. Those candidates lag far behind Mr. McCain in national polls asking voters whether they support a Republican or Democrat for Congress.

“Why focus on what divides us?” Mr. Fabrizio said.

Mr. McCain sometimes has sent conflicting messages on immigration.

He hedged when asked whether, as president, he would sign legislation he helped write to legalize illegal immigrants, and now says such action should only be taken after border security is strengthened. But he also publicly lamented the defeat of his measure, calling it “my failure, too.”

For Mr. Obama, who did poorly with Hispanic voters in the Democratic primary, the predicament is less pronounced but no less puzzling. On immigration issues where he and Mr. McCain differ, Mr. Obama’s views are out of synch with those of most voters, polls show.

Mr. Obama’s support for giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants is a prime example; polls show that the public overwhelmingly opposes it. Mr. Obama also supports giving legal status to immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children and have completed two years of college or military service.

Democrats “do want to be out front on it, but they fear alienating those blue-collar, skeptical voters,” Mr. Jacoby said.

Mr. Obama got a taste of that backlash recently. He drew heavy criticism in the blogosphere for suggesting that conservative cable TV hosts who routinely denounce illegal immigration are partly to blame for a rise in hate crimes against Hispanics.

“A certain segment has basically been feeding a kind of xenophobia,” Mr. Obama said at a fundraiser in Palm Beach, Fla. “If you have people like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh ginning things up, it’s not surprising that would happen.”

Candidates are finding other, less risky, ways to telegraph their sympathy for Hispanic voters.

Mr. McCain has a TV ad praising Hispanics’ service in Vietnam and Iraq and saying that some “love this country so much that they’re willing to risk their lives in its service in order to accelerate their path to citizenship.” Mr. Obama spoke Spanish in an ad aired in Puerto Rico that focused on economic concerns.

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