The immigration debate roiling Congress has spilled over onto the presidential campaign trail, exposing rifts among Republican candidates and triggering a round of intraparty crossfire that analysts say is splintering the GOP.
The divisions were on stark display at the Republican debate Tuesday night. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, an author of the Senate immigration compromise backed by the Bush administration, called immigrants "God's children" and defended what he said was a practical plan to secure borders while laying a path to citizenship for the country's 12 million illegal immigrants.
But the measure drew attacks from other Republican hopefuls, who described the plan as a threat, by turns, to national security, the rule of law, and American culture.
The internecine sparring has vexed conservative leaders, who worry that it could fragment a party saddled with an unpopular president and struggling for traction against resurgent Democrats.
"Just as the Democrats are having an internal war on the issue of Iraq, the immigration issue is doing the same to the Republican Party: It's tearing the party in two," says Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has criticized the legislation.
A CBS News/New York Times poll last month found Republicans almost evenly split over President Bush's immigration plan, with 41 percent in favor and 47 percent against. Bipartisan versions of the measure before the Senate would establish a guest-worker program for short stays, an admission point-system that favors high-skilled immigrants, and "Z visas" that let illegal immigrants apply for legal status after paying fines, passing background checks, and learning English.
A FRAGMENTED BASE
In part, some analysts say, the strains over the legislation reflect tensions between two pillars of the Republican base – working-class white voters who may see illegal immigrants as competition for jobs and business leaders who have grown dependent on large pools of low-wage workers.
"What's at stake is nothing less than the future of the party," says Tamar Jacoby, a backer of the Senate measure and senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. "There are far too many Republicans worried about the 10 to 20 percent of voters who are adamantly anti-immigrant – the Lou Dobbs voter," she says, referring to the host of the CNN series "Broken Borders."
McCain, who represents a border state with a population that is 29 percent Hispanic, found himself in a lonely minority at Tuesday's debate. Of the 10 men on stage, only Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas explicitly endorsed parts of his plan.
"The problem with this immigration plan is it has no real unifying purpose," former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said. "It's a typical Washington mess."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called the bill a form of amnesty "unfair to the millions and millions of people around the world that would love to come here."
And Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who earlier announced a "Save America Campaign" to drive the measure's supporters from office, said the legislation would prove "disastrous" for a country unable to absorb more immigrants. "How long will it take for us to catch up with the millions of people who have come here, both legally and illegally, and assimilate them?" he asked.
"It'll take this long: until we no longer have to press 1 for English and 2 for any other language," he said, to applause from the audience of undecided Republican and independent voters at Saint Anselm College, in Manchester, N.H.
McCain's recent exchanges with Republican colleagues have been particularly caustic. When Sen. John Cornyn of Texas accused him last month of shirking negotiations over the bill in favor of the campaign trail, McCain reportedly said, "I know more about this issue than anyone here in the room."
A few days later, McCain assailed Romney, one of his chief critics, suggesting the former governor "get out his small-varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his yard," a reference to reports that the former governor had hired – unwittingly, Romney later said – undocumented workers to landscape his Boston home.
McCain kept up the offensive Monday in a speech in south Florida, praising the immigrant-rich region as a "living testament to the benefits of immigration" and accusing critics of inaction. "Pandering for votes on this issue, while offering no solution to the problem, amounts to doing nothing. And doing nothing is silent amnesty."
Romney opposes citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the US and favors a plan stressing border security and worker ID cards that employers would be required to check against a federal database to verify immigration status.
THE POLITICAL GAMBLE
Campaign handicappers say political leaders' opposition to the immigration measure is a gamble over the long term, not least because of the growing political muscle of the Hispanic population.
"My sense is that the Romney strategy is probably a better strategy for the caucus and the nomination process, but the McCain strategy is one that would play better in the general election," says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University.
Conservative ire over the Senate immigration measure is a "real gift to aspiring Republicans," says Prof. Roger Robins of Marymount College, in California.
With the immigration bill, "they get to bash Bush and play to the Republican base," he said. "But the price is overall party unity."