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updated 7/29/2010 6:22:36 PM ET 2010-07-29T22:22:36

On the surface, a judge's decision to block tough provisions of Arizona's immigration law was a defeat for the state's Republican governor and a win for the Democratic Obama administration. But neither party is sure it will play out that way politically, either this fall or beyond.

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Keeping the illegal-immigration issue burning might help some Republican candidates, who need a fired-up conservative base, campaign strategists in both parties said Thursday. And the federal ruling might let Republicans campaign for tougher immigration enforcement without embarrassing scenes of police officers demanding documents from U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent, a widely predicted fallout of Arizona's pending law.

But if the GOP appears too zealous, it runs a longer-term risk of alienating Hispanic voters, one of the fastest-growing constituencies.

A handful of Republicans pounced on U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton's decision Wednesday to block provisions of the Arizona law, including a section that requires officers to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws.

The Republican Governors Association issued a fundraising e-mail from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, asking for help in the ongoing fight to implement the law. And Colorado Senate hopeful Jane Norton's campaign conducted robocalls telling Republican voters of her support for the measure.

But beyond Arizona, where street demonstrations took place on Thursday, many politicians took a wait-and-see stance. In Washington, top Republican lawmakers and party officials made statements about jobs, energy, taxes, health care, campaign finance and passport fraud, but there was hardly a whisper about immigration.

Democrats were nearly as quiet, aside from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus calling for a comprehensive solution to the issue.

The people plotting campaign strategy say illegal immigration can be an emotional but unpredictable issue. Many Americans express concerns about unlawful entries and the impact on wages and government resources. But they also talk about the power of deportation to break up families, and other matters.

Joanna Burgos of the National Republican Congressional Committee said the judge's ruling may help GOP candidates in close races in Arizona and south Texas. In these areas, where some illegal immigrants have smuggled drugs and committed violent crimes, she said, the issue is seen as a matter of security far more than one of civil rights or economic well-being.

Elsewhere this fall, Burgos said, jobs, health care and perhaps energy will probably overshadow immigration.

Washington-based GOP consultant Ron Bonjean agreed that immigration will not dominate the fall elections, although he predicted some Republican candidates will try to show "that the problem needs to be solved."

Bonjean said Republicans must proceed carefully with Hispanic voters. Republicans can hurt themselves for years to come if they appear unduly hostile to immigrants who came here illegally years ago, or seem indifferent to the rights of those here legally.

"The immigration issue is so sensitive," Bonjean said. "While Republicans are using it to fire up conservatives and independents, they'll have to find ways to talk about it without alienating Hispanic voters."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday that Democrats are wrong to say Republicans are hiding prejudices behind the banner of national safety.

"There are some people who think that it's a trick, that when we say it's border security, that we're not interested in a broader immigration bill," Cornyn said in an interview at the Capitol. "I stand ready, willing and able to engage, but it's going to take some presidential leadership."

Democrats also were trying to sort out the Arizona ruling's impact.

It showed that the Obama administration, which sued Arizona to block the law's implementation, had a viable legal argument that the response to illegal immigration should be national, not piecemeal. But Bolton's ruling also underscored the fact that a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House have failed to find a comprehensive solution to the problem.

Among Republicans, few have struggled with immigration more than Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who faces Republican and Democratic challenges to his re-election bid this fall. Once an advocate of a comprehensive plan with a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, McCain now supports the Arizona law and focuses on securing the border with Mexico.

When the federal government fails to resolve a huge issue like illegal immigration, McCain said Thursday, "then the states have to do it themselves as a matter of security."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Matthews: Immigration ruling a ‘killer’ for Dems

  1. Transcript of: Matthews: Immigration ruling a ‘killer’ for Dems

    MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this federal injunction against the new Arizona immigration law . First of all, it is a killer issue politically for the Democrats this fall and a huge windfall for the right. It will anger even those people who believe the Arizona law went too far. It will dramatize the main case raised by the Tea Party people, that the federal government in Washington has become too powerful, that the rights of states have been terribly abridged. That is the political consequence and it will be felt mightily this November. I say this realizing a critical problem with the Arizona law. The policeman who stops a suspected illegal immigrant would under the new Arizona law be required to check out that person`s immigration status. Standing next to that stopped car, he would be at a horribly unfair disadvantage. He might suspect the person of being in the country illegally. The immigrants would certainly know it and might well decide to fight it out rather than face deportation and separation from his or her family. It is not hard to imagine the desperate moral calculation this would trigger. But the plain fact that most Americans recognize to their distress is that the federal government has not been serious about enforcing the immigration laws . Arizona , whatever you may think of its law, is at least attempting to deal with that situation. That, too, is a fact -- cruel as it might come across. I wish Americans were fair-minded about immigration. I wish the politicians were honest about it. The right panders by suggesting we throw the millions of illegal immigrants out of the country knowing full well that would be a catastrophe. The liberals refuse to get serious about enforcement. This is one case where government in this country has simply failed. And that means the politicians have failed. The deal is there to be struck. Find a way for people who have made their lives here to become full, assimilated Americans like every other immigrant over our history and find a way to stop the illegal hiring of people who have no right to be in this country. Do both or get out of the way -- because only by doing both will there be a deal. And without a deal, this problem will grow and grow, the divide in the country will cut deeper and deeper, and the only winners will be the exploiters, those interests love this issue because the more heat it raises on illegal immigrants , the more it cheapens their labor and delivers the vote. And that, too, is a fact. That`s HARDBALL for

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