Utah Republicans Turn on Incumbent

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A Republican primary in Utah's third Congressional district is emblematic of the GOP's internal battle over immigration. Incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon faces a strong challenge from a fellow Republican backed by anti-immigration forces, who claim Cannon is out of step with the party on the issue.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Immigration is also in the political spotlight in Utah. In that state's third district, five-term Republican Congressman Chris Cannon, a reliable conservative, is under attack.

There's a primary next Tuesday and as Brian Schott, of member station KCPW reports, Cannon was denied his party's official endorsement over his position on immigration.

BRIAN SCHOTT: It's perhaps the most Republican district in the nation. Utah's third district, which covers the southwestern third of the state, gave President Bush 77% of the vote in 2004. It's not the kind of place you might find a strong Bush loyalist with his back against the wall, but Congressman Chris Cannon is in a fight for survival.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION COMMERCIAL)

Unidentified Announcer: Congressman Chris Cannon says he's tough on illegal immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

Announcer: He says he's never supported amnesty for illegal aliens.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

Announcer: In fact, he supported amnesty bills for illegal aliens nine times, and even co-sponsored amnesty bills six times.

SCHOTT: That's an ad from the anti-immigration political action group Team America. They've been peppering the airwaves here in a full assault on Cannon's stance on immigration. Cannon, like most conservatives, supports a crackdown on illegal immigration. But at the same time, he, like President Bush, also supports a guest worker program that would hire illegal immigrants for hard-to- fill jobs. And that's what this race is all about.

Cannon is facing a stiff challenge in Tuesday's primary from businessman John Jacob. Jacob is a political neophyte, but has caught lightning in a bottle with the immigration issue. In a recent debate, Jacob says he sees this primary as a bellwether that's resonating nationally.

JOHN JACOB: The problem that he's come up with is that it's just a one, you know, it's a one-issue problem, when in reality it's all issues of our life. Everything about illegal immigration is wrong. You look it - it affects crime. It affects our schools. It affects our jobs.

SCHOTT: Cannon says Jacob is distorting his position.

CANNON: That's because despite the fact that you keep saying that I am for illegal immigration, that I'm for these illegal people, that I'm somehow soft, I've been tough on the issue. I voted to put troops on the border the first year I got into Congress. This is an issue that's developed and evolved and it's at a point where we can either solve it or not.

SCHOTT: Utah pollster Dan Jones says he's disappointed by what he's seen in this race.

DAN JONES: Sometimes these kinds of issues bring out the best and courage in individuals and sometimes it brings out the worst.

SCHOTT: At a recent political open house in Orem, Utah, many voters said immigration was their top concern. Carl Liffert(ph) is from Springville.

CARL LIFFERT: Well, it's a hot one right now. I think it does affect the economy. I mean we have a strong economy now, everything's fine. Starts going down, then we're paying benefits for these illegal immigrants. So those are my concerns right now.

SCHOTT: Chris Herron is from Provo.

CHRIS HERRON: It often gets defined, you know, as a racist issue. My wife's an immigrant. My partner's an immigrant. You can hardly say that I'm anti-immigrant but I'm for legal immigration. It's very difficult.

SCHOTT: Recently Jacob has been accused of hiring a couple from Chile to work in his home who were not eligible to work legally in the United States. The wife was on a visa for a student spouse, which prohibits employment in the U.S. Cannon seized on this in a recent debate with Jacob to highlight his point that there's no easy fix to the immigration issue.

CANNON: If whatever happened, if she went to work and took employment, she was out of status. She's now - if you pass the law, if you criticize me for having some reservations about, like we have in the House - she would be a felon. She'd go to the federal penitentiary for 3-5 years.

SCHOTT: The White House has taken the unusual step of getting involved in the primary. President Bush has officially endorsed Cannon, and First Lady Laura Bush recently recorded a telephone message on his behalf. Internal polling for both campaigns show nearly 40 percent of voters in the district are undecided, which has prompted a last-minute media blitz from both sides.

Whoever wins on Tuesday, no doubt, will make the claim that it was his position on immigration that made the difference. And Republicans around the country, no doubt, will be watching with interest.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Schott in Salt Lake City.

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