Tancredo Could Handicap Eventual Nominee

It’s commonly believed that Colorado Congressman and presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo’s presidential bid is all about forcing the issue of illegal immigration into the fore of the race for the GOP nomination. There’s some indication that his constant hammering on the issue is working. Frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, for instance, have been running radio ads in New Hampshire and Iowa calling for stronger immigration measures. Taking a swipe at Giuliani as the former mayor of New York, Romney’s ad says: “Immigration laws don’t work if they’re ignored. That’s the problem with cities like Newark, San Francisco and New York City that adopt sanctuary policies. Sanctuary cities become magnets that encourage illegal immigration and undermine secure borders.”

But while the candidates are talking about immigration, some polls show voters are turning their attention elsewhere. A June poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 20 percent of likely Republican voters said immigration was the top issue they wanted to hear candidates talk about, behind Iraq and health care. That number had dropped to 15 percent by August and was leapfrogged by the percentage of voters who wanted to hear candidates discuss terrorism.

continued…In a Sept. 8 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan noted Tancredo’s failure to engage large numbers of voters on the immigration issue:

“When you can’t compellingly break through with the issue that most roils the base, and on which you were a leader and in agreement with the roiled, then you should admit it didn’t work, and leave.”

But at the same time GOP candidates’ tough talk on immigration isn’t making waves among primary voters, it’s making it difficult for them to effectively reach out to Latinos.

That was evident Sunday as seven Democratic candidates participated in the first-ever Spanish language debate on Univision. The Republican candidates were also asked to hold such a debate, but only Sen. John McCain accepted. Time Magazine’s Jay Newton Small suggests that because GOP candidates have upped the ante with their immigration rhetoric (whether or not because of Tancredo’s presence), they would be setting themselves up for attack by addressing Hispanic voters:

So why are 10 GOP candidates so unwilling to face Hispanic voters this year? In one word – immigration. Most Republican platforms on the divisive issue – which are variations of beefing up border controls – serve to shore up their base, but anger most immigrant communities, not just Hispanics. “For the Republicans, if they had a debate in Spanish, on Univision, they would get as many questions on immigration and so they would have to speak about immigration in the same way they speak about immigration on CNN on MSNBC and all the other networks,” said Sergio Bendixon, a leading pollster of Latino voting trends. “And that, I’m sure they have figured, would be offensive, almost insulting to most Hispanic voters and definitely to Latin American immigrant voters.”

Alienating Latino voters might be a risk GOP candidates are willing to take during the primary in order to avoid being called soft on illegal immigration, but the choice could haunt the eventual nominee in the general election. President Bush received an estimated 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, and votes of immigrants can be crucial for the GOP in states such as Florida, where Cuban immigrants vote heavily for Republicans.

If, as some pundits are saying, Tancredo is forcing his fellow GOP candidates to beef up their talk on illegal immigration, he may be affecting more than just the GOP primary. He could be giving the eventual nominee a major handicap among critical Hispanic voters.

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Kerri Rebresh

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