GOP Rattled Over Arizona Immigration Law

Several protests over Arizona's tough new immigration law are scheduled around the state Saturday. Host Scott Simon and NPR News Analyst Juan Williams discuss the political implications of Arizona's new immigration law and Florida Governor Charlie Crist's decision to run for U.S. Senate as an Independent.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

NPR News analyst Juan Williams is in Phoenix - that's one of the many cities where protests are scheduled today. Demonstrators there plan to call for a boycott of Arizona. Juan joins us from the studios of KHOT in Phoenix. Juan, thanks for being with us.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And let's get right to the politics of this. What does this dispute mean for Republicans, what's it mean for Democrats?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's potentially toxic for Republicans. You know, just yesterday Governor Jan Brewer signed changes in the law, amendments to further emphasize that this is not about racial profiling. You know, the ACLU, though, says that's immediately not enough, that instead what you're going to do is just make it more difficult for people to complain about police actions that may involve profiling, but certainly harassment.

So, you can see that Governor Brewer, who has a tough primary race coming up this summer, feels on the defensive. People who put the law in place are worried that in fact what this is doing for Democrats not only here in Arizona but nationally is to energize that Democratic base, where previously the pulse of the American electorate, I think for the last few months, has been on the right - the Tea Party movement and the like.

Suddenly you're seeing people on the left, and especially in the Hispanic community, complaining about civil rights, human rights violations - the marches you mentioned, Scott. Sarah Palin, in fact, said this week that she thinks that President Obama and the Democrats are emphasizing the racial angle of the bill to incite and energize their base.

But one thing you have to look at, though, of course, is the polls. And right now 64 percent of Arizonans favor this bill, according to a Rasmussen poll, and nationally Gallup has found 51 percent of Americans in favor of it. Now, the key there is that independents favor the bill 37-29. In general, Republicans support it, Democrats oppose it. But that fact that 37-29 independents are for it is key politically.

SIMON: Hispanics are often referred to as the fastest-growing voter base in the country. And, you know, there was a time just a few years ago when Republicans seemed to be making great inroads with that base by emphasizing family values and other items in the Republican agenda. What's the possible impact on the Hispanic vote?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's just so key because it's the fastest-growing vote in the country and of course it's a major element here in Arizona. But, you know, you go across from California to Colorado into Texas, it's just a major...

SIMON: Illinois and New Jersey, for that matter.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely, everywhere. But, I mean, it is big enough to tip elections if you get that base to turn out in big numbers. For example, here in Phoenix the mayor is opposed to it and saying, you know what, he stands with his Hispanic voters, his Hispanic residents. Same thing in Flagstaff and Tucson, where they're considering suits to block the law.

And then, of course, you've got things like people marching outside the baseball game in your hometown of Chicago, Scott. You know, you see the Hispanic community absolutely in gear now, and you know, previously people were worried that they were angry at President Obama for failing to take action on the national level. And that's not an issue at the moment.

SIMON: There is some internal dispute among Republicans, isn't there?

WILLIAMS: Oh boy, is there ever. I mean, you stop and look at it. Just look at the names, Scott. You can have people who are opposed to the bill, including Lindsay Graham, the senator from South Carolina; Connie Mack, the representative from Florida; Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida; Karl Rove says it's not going to be an effective law.

But on the side, then you get people like Sarah Palin; obviously Jan Brewer here, the governor of Arizona. You get a big split between people who are saying we are representing people who are fed up with illegal immigrants coming into the country, burdening the Social Security, Social Security system, the social safety net system, the schools, the hospitals, all the rest, and we're finally giving voice because the federal government hasn't done anything.

But they do so, again, especially when I'm talking to Republican political strategists, at the risk of alienating that fast-growing Hispanic vote. And that's why you see some Republicans saying this is a bad move for the party.

SIMON: And a very quick reflection, Juan, on Florida Governor Charlie Crist's announcement that he's going to run for the Senate as an independent.

WILLIAMS: It's a key move, and really, again, bad news for Republicans because it empowers Kendrick Meeks, the Democrat, now to really split the vote and puts Marco Rubio as the Republican nominee in a really tricky position.

SIMON: NPR News analyst Juan Williams in Phoenix. Thanks so much for being with us so early, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Scott.

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