updated 10/4/2006 9:47:52 AM ET 2006-10-04T13:47:52

Locked in a four-way race for re-election, Republican Gov. Rick Perry is walking a 1,200-mile political tightrope - the Texas-Mexico border.

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He has to look tough to fiercely anti-immigration Republican voters. At the same time, some of his biggest donors are homebuilders, poultry processors and ranchers who depend on immigrants to fill jobs they say native-born Americans don't want.

Then there's the tricky matter of supporting President Bush, Perry's predecessor, while looking strong enough to take on the federal government when border sheriffs and residents complain they are doing all the heavy lifting to keep Texas secure.

Multiple battlefronts
It is a balancing act that has left him open to attack from his three major opponents, Democrat Chris Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. 2006 key races

Texas is home to roughly 1.4 million illegal immigrants, more than any other state but California, according to the federal government. An average of 54,000 illegal immigrants settled in Texas every year between 2000 and 2005, more than in any other state.

Perry avoided the border security issue for months, insisting it was Washington's responsibility. At the same time, drug-related violence escalated in Laredo and the governors of Arizona and New Mexico declared states of emergency on their borders.

'Operation Linebacker'
Perry began to focus on the issue last October.

He has since provided millions to support Operation Linebacker, an effort by sheriffs along the border to reduce crime, and Operation Rio Grande, a state project that includes putting hundreds of surveillance cameras on volunteers' property and eventually broadcasting the images over the Internet so viewers can let law enforcement know about suspicious activity.

One of his first television ads showed him trekking across the rugged border terrain, promising to secure the border.

Playing on voters' fears
Strayhorn has accused the governor of "failed leadership," complaining: "The border has been ignored to the point that ordinary citizens rather than law enforcement officials have been enforcing illegal immigration."

Bell has charged that Perry is turning a serious problem into little more than an online video game and is playing on voters' fears.

"In the Republican Party, you can gin up energy and emotion on the idea that illegal crossing of the border is a big problem," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "They try to elicit an image in people's minds of al-Qaida operatives low crawling across the border with their AK-47s."

Opponents proposals
Strayhorn, who was elected state comptroller as a Republican, is taking a similar approach. Last week, she unveiled her own border security plan against the backdrop of Houston's Ship Channel and the Port of Houston, saying such installations are enticing targets for those who hope to paralyze the state and national economy.

She proposed to double the size of the Texas Rangers from 118 to 230 and put them in charge of state homeland security.

Friedman says he would increase the number of National Guardsmen on the border from 1,500 to 10,000, fine companies for hiring illegal immigrants and require immigrants seeking jobs to apply for taxpayer identification cards and pass a background check.

Strayhorn has not said much about what to do with the illegal immigrants already living in Texas. Perry refuses to discuss the issue, saying it is wrong to tackle immigration reform before the border is secure. Bell opposes any amnesty but says there needs to be a way for immigrants to earn citizenship.

Public opinion
Polls in general have given Perry about a third of the vote, with Friedman and Strayhorn about 5 to 10 percentage points behind and Bell trailing.

Some political observers say Perry is all but unbeatable because his opponents will split the vote. But the immigration issue carries political risks.

Recently, three dozen prominent Texas businessmen published a letter to Congress in The Dallas Morning News urging lawmakers to "pass immigration reform that provides the workers we need to keep our businesses growing."

If Perry wins, it will be easier for him to endorse a guest worker program that will appeal to those big donors, Jillson said. The president favors a guest worker program and ways for illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship.

Perry will "probably support the president after the election in a more comprehensive solution," the political scientist said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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