The revival of the national immigration debate has left Republican candidates in Tuesday's gubernatorial and Senate primaries in California facing a perilous tradeoff. They want to please the party's conservative base -- and preserve their broader appeal for the general election.
GOP hopefuls Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner are competing for the nomination to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is barred from running again by term limits. Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, has seen his popularity greatly diminish, particularly among the conservative voters expected to dominate the Republican primary.
In a bid to win over conservatives, Poizner, California's insurance commissioner, has sought to make immigration a defining issue. He has expressed strong support for the controversial Arizona law on illegal immigration and has attacked Whitman for opposing it, with one ad calling it the "key difference" between them.
Poizner criticized the decision by the City of Los Angeles to boycott Arizona businesses to protest the immigration law. At a news conference on June 2, he pledged if elected to require all state contractors to provide proof of their employee's immigration status, boycotting any firms that have hired illegal immigrants.
Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, who has consistently led Poizner in the polls, has sought to show that while she opposes the Arizona law, she is not weak on illegal immigration. In her own television advertising, she promises "to secure our border with absolutely no amnesty," as part of her effort to "save California."
This position, however, is a switch from the rhetoric she used in the earliest stages of her campaign. Back in November, Whitman told a largely Latino audience that she supported "comprehensive immigration reform." While the Whitman campaign now maintains that this referred to her plans for enhanced border security and a guest worker program, the phrase generally implies a path to legalization for illegal immigrants currently in the United States, and the campaign did not object to this characterization until the attacks from Poizner began.
The immigration debate could compromise Republicans' chances of winning in November. Hispanics compromise approximately 37 percent of California's population and candidates cannot afford to alienate Latino voters, large majorities of whom oppose the Arizona law and favor earned legalization.
The situation reminds some Californians of the controversy over Proposition 187, a ballot measure heavily promoted by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and approved by voters in 1994, which would have prevented illegal immigrants from using public services such as health care and education. Although Wilson, now Whitman's campaign chairman, rode the initiative to reelection, constitutional challenges prevented it from ever taking effect and many observers have blamed the animosity engendered among Hispanics by the effort for Republican's electoral difficulties in the state in the years since.
The California Nurses Association began running Spanish-language ads last week on Los Angeles radio stations, tying Whitman to Wilson's immigration policies.