GOP Candidates For Calif. Gov. Focus On Immigration

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While the politics of illegal immigration are simmering in a number of places, it's boiling over in California. It's led to a huge fight between the two Republicans seeking to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. The fight has eclipsed even the state's dismal finances as the focus of the campaign.


The politics of illegal immigration are front-and-center in California right now. It's led to a huge fight between the two Republicans hoping to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. John Myers of member station KQED has this report.

JOHN MYERS: Is it unusual for Republicans to take swipes at the president in a political ad this year? Of course not. But in California, the swipes are at a different president.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Do you want a governor who has the same position on illegal immigration as the president of Mexico?

MYERS: That ad is from Steve Poizner, California's state insurance commissioner and candidate for the Republican nomination for governor on June 8th. His target: challenger and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, after she refused to endorse the new Arizona law that makes it a crime to be in the state without proof of legal residence.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Why in the world would Republicans vote for Meg Whitman if she has the same position on illegal immigration as the president of Mexico? Not Steve Poizner. Steve strongly supports Arizona's law, opposes amnesty, and will cut off taxpayer benefits to illegal immigrants.

MYERS: Poizner's line of attack may be part of why a statewide poll last week found him only nine points behind frontrunner Meg Whitman. Two months earlier, he was losing by 50 points. The narrowing of the gap has forced Whitman to fight back.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Ms. MEG WHITMAN (Republican Candidate for Governor of California): On immigration, I will secure our border, and I'll send in the National Guard if necessary. I say no driver licenses, no sanctuary cities, and absolutely no amnesty, period.

MYERS: Whitman has been playing defense for comments made last year that seemed to support immigration reform that includes an eventual path to citizenship. In an interview last week, she backed off.

Ms. WHITMAN: Until we can convince the American people that we can secure the border, that we can get our arms around this illegal immigration problem, I don't think the American people are willing to talk about any of those proposals.

MYERS: The issue of illegal immigration plays well with conservative Republican voters, voters who may have heard that, in the past, both candidates have less-than-conservative positions on other issues.

Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Director of Institute of Politics, University of Southern California): What you get are two moderate Republican both trying to convince conservatives that the other one is more liberal.

MYERS: Dan Schnur is director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. In the 1990s, he worked for the state's most famous get-tough-on-illegal-immigration politician: former Governor Pete Wilson.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man: They keep coming: two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them.

MYERS: That TV ad was part of a 1994 campaign to ban illegal immigrants from state government programs and services, the same kinds of proposals now being made by Steve Poizner. But former Governor Wilson is a supporter and defender of Meg Whitman.

The 1994 campaign drove a wedge between Republicans and Latinos in California. USC's Dan Schnur says a recent poll found the renewed push to punish illegal immigrants is creating a different gap: a generational one.

Mr. SCHNUR: Young Californians between the age of 18 and 29 were those who were most strongly opposed to the withholding of benefits to illegal immigrants and their families. And older voters in their 50s and 60s were most strongest in support.

MYERS: Schnur says the issue of illegal immigration won't play as well after the primary is over, and it isn't on the top of the to-do list of voters. Last week's statewide poll found only nine percent of those surveyed said illegal immigration is the biggest issue facing California. Fifty-three percent said its jobs and the economy.

For NPR News, I'm John Myers, in Sacramento.

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