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Immigration issue could make or break presidential candidates

The touchy subject has become a political minefield for '08 contenders.

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A recent report called "Hispanics Rising" done by NDN, a progressive Democrat-leaning think tank, notes there was "a dramatic reversal" of Hispanic voting patterns as a result. In 2004, 40 percent of Hispanics voted Republican, according to exit polls cited by NDN. In 2006, only 30 percent pulled the lever for the GOP.

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"This has been a catastrophic issue for the Republican Party because they've made a massive investment in something that's gotten them nothing," says Simon Rosenberg of NDN.

That trend also has some Republicans worried. "Republicans have given Democrats a way to take a free ride: Too many people in my party have chosen to demagogue on immigration, and that makes it easy for Democrats to say, 'We'd like to do better,' " says Tamar Jacoby, a political analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

Supporters of taking a tough stance on illegal immigration disagree. Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group, argues that Hispanics still make up a relatively small percentage of the voting population. There are enough moderates angered by illegal immigration in both parties to offset the Hispanic vote, he says.

Driver's licenses in New York

For proof, he points to New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. With 72 percent of New Yorkers opposed, he withdrew the idea last week – but not before it tripped up Senator Clinton on the campaign trail when she, in Mr. Mehlman's words, "tried to dance" around the issue by saying that it was a "sound idea" but that she opposed it.

"It's a tougher issue for Democrats because to get the nomination you have to go farther out to the left," says Mehlman. "That's probably the only sector of the American public that doesn't want to see meaningful enforcement."

Therein likes the immigration pitfall for Democrats. Many Democrat voters, including blue-collar workers and some African-Americans, blame illegal immigration for driving down wages and increasing worker exploitation. They, too, want to see strict workplace enforcement and tighter border security.

"Republicans are ready to pounce on Democrats for being soft and weak on illegals," says Zogby.

Polls show the majority of Americans support finding a way to allow the estimated 12 million to 15 million illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. But those poll outcomes depend very much on how the question is asked.

"If you put the stress on the fact that these people are here illegally, that colors everything else. People say, 'They've already broken the law; they can't be rewarded for that,' " says Mr. Sabato, the University of Virginia political analyst. "But if you start out by saying, 'Should we create a path for citizenship for those that are here trying to build better lives for themselves and their families?' Then that brings out the compassionate side of the American public."

Since this is such an emotional, hot-button issue, voters can expect most of the main presidential candidates to stick very close to their scripted positions – and avoid getting entangled in specifics.

"That's the dance we're going to see all the way through 2008," says Tom Patterson, a political analyst at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "If a Democrat does get elected, there will be a serious effort to come back to something that, ironically, won't be too different from what President Bush proposed [in 2006]."