WASHINGTON — 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."
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