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Immigration and Iraq driving '06 races

It’s now clear that Republicans have decided to fight the 2006 campaign on the battlefields of Iraq and the Mexican border.'s Tom Curry looks at the issues driving this year's races.
Rick Santorum
In a battle for a third term, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., launched his TV ad effort with a spot warning of 'sinister' illegal immigrants.John Heller / AP file
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WASHINGTON — It’s now clear that Republicans have decided to fight the 2006 campaign on the battlefields of Iraq and the Mexican border.

But Democrats also think Iraq and immigration work to their benefit in this fall’s elections. The paradox: both parties believe the issues of immigration and Iraq will be winners for them.

Can both be right? Only if what's a winner in one district — a message of getting tough on illegal immigration, for instance — is a loser in another district.

House Republican leaders said last week they’ll dispatch their members to spend the July and August recesses holding hearings around the country to expose what they see as flaws in the Senate-passed immigration bill.

That measure, OK’d last month but not yet reconciled with a House immigration bill, would allow illegal immigrants to become citizens and would set up a guest worker program. The House bill takes a tougher, secure-the-border approach with no guest worker provision and no legalization process.

In an early test of the immigration issue, Rep. Chris Cannon, R- Utah easily won the Republican primary in his district Tuesday, fending off challenger John Jacob, who took a hard anti-illegal immigration stance and was backed by Team America, a political action committee created by Rep. Tom Tancredo, R- Colo., the most outspoken foe of illegal immigration in the House. It was a rebuff for Tancredo and a win for President Bush who had endorsed Cannon.

Santorum starts ad pitch with immigration
An indicator of how significant GOP incumbents think the illegal immigration issue is for this November’s election came last Friday when Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who most analysts see as the most endangered Senate incumbent, kicked off his television advertising effort with a spot contrasting his immigrant father and grandfather who “came here with dreams of a better life for their family” with today’s illegal immigrants.

“Some enter our country with more sinister intentions,” Santorum warned.

Santorum faces Democrat Bob Casey Jr. who supports the Senate bill.

Another sign that Republicans see illegal immigration as an issue that favors them came Sunday night in a debate between New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Tom Kean, Jr. and incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.

Kean accused Menendez of voting to give “a direct path to citizenship for those individuals who have entered our country illegally and broken our laws. I think that's wrong.”

Menendez did vote for the immigration bill which the Senate passed last month, as did almost all Senate Democrats. But that vote also highlighted the schism in GOP ranks. Voting for the bill were 23 Republican senators; opposing it, 32 Republicans.

Not a winning issue?
Democratic pollsters and strategists say Republican efforts to use the immigration issue to win in November are doomed to failure.

Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said voters aren’t as fired up about illegal immigration as Republicans think they are.

“From what I’ve seen in the national (survey) data, we have a very polarized debate in Congress and yet a pretty moderate electorate, even in states like Arizona,” Greenberg said.

Joe Garcia, the director of the Hispanic Strategy Center for the New Democrat Network, a group that identifies key issues and rallies Democratic voters, said of the Republicans’ election-year immigration push, “They’re about to engage in what will probably go down in history as one of the more nefarious acts of political expediency and baiting of a community that we will have seen in our lifetime.”

He added, “Maybe there will be short-term (Republican) victories here, but the long-term defeat for Republicans is inevitable for their inability to control the rhetoric” in the immigration battle.

In Arizona, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado, NDN is running Spanish-language TV ads pegged to the World Cup soccer championship telling Latino viewers “the moment of truth is upon us” and urging them to “join the (Democratic) team.”

'Too much Tancredo'
Republican strategist Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a strong supporter of the Senate-passed bill, said, “As long as Reagan and Bush are the face of the party, the party will survive…. You turn on Spanish TV and you see too much Tancredo and not enough Bush, not enough Reagan.”

He added, “We had an election on this in the Republican party in 2000. There were two guys running (for the GOP presidential nomination) as pro-immigrant, pro-reform people, McCain and Bush. There was a guy running against them and that was Buchanan.” He noted that while McCain and Bush won elections and now hold office, Buchanan didn’t win. “I’m not sure it’s the political winner some people think it is,” he added.

Meanwhile on Iraq, Democrats are arguing that their proposal for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops is simply what the Bush administration is planning to do anyway by year’s end.

Last week Senate Republicans trumpeted the defeat of two Democratic proposals which would have set a date for withdrawing troops.

Frist charges 'defeatism'
Majority Leader Bill Frist said setting a date for withdrawal “would be a dangerous policy, a reckless policy, and a shameful policy.”

He added, “The spirit of these amendments is the spirit of defeatism and surrender.”

But in the New Jersey Senate race, Democrat Menendez  — who voted for a withdraw-by-next-year amendment offered by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D- Wisc. — seems unfazed by the Republican “defeatism” rhetoric.

Menendez is going on the offensive on Iraq with his new ad.

“This administration and its allies have taken the wrong position time after time. They were wrong on Iraq, wrong on siding with Big Oil,” Menendez says in the ad. “My opponent supports George Bush’s war. I couldn’t disagree more.”

In their debate Sunday, Kean said he opposed “setting an artificial timeline” for withdrawing American troops because “it puts them in harm's way and puts people in this country in harm's way.”

Some cross party lines
It’s simplistic to see this as a story of party-line contrasts: some congressional Republicans have deep misgivings about the Iraq operation, while some Democrats oppose any timetable for withdrawal.

Two weeks ago, when the House approved a resolution declaring that the United States should not set an arbitrary date for withdrawing troops from Iraq, 42 Democrats voted for it, while three Republicans voted against it.

A few centrist and conservative Democrats are still sounding hawkish on Iraq, notably Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., in a primary battle with Ned Lamont, an anti-Iraq war challenger.

Lamont skewered Lieberman in a new TV ad Tuesday, with video of President Bush’s face. Coming from Bush’s mouth was Lieberman’s voice uttering lines such as, “We are now at a point where the Iraq war is a war of necessity.”

On immigration, going against the partisan grain is Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., D-Tenn., who is running for the Senate.

He is airing a radio ad making a connection between illegal immigrants and the risk of terrorists slipping across U.S. borders.

The Democrat reminds the radio audience that he voted for the House Republicans’ immigration bill. “In Congress, I put party aside and voted for the toughest immigration plan: to get control of our borders,” Ford says.

No Democrat has won a Senate seat in Tennessee in 16 years, but Ford’s immigrant stance may help him get closer to that goal.