ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The issue of illegal immigration ranks just after the war in Iraq for many Republican voters. That's according to a number of polls. Some of the GOP candidates have decidedly moderate records on immigration.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, they've been hardening their positions to appeal to their party's base.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: It may seem odd that illegal immigration is a burning issue in rural Iowa, or that the corn state even has a Hispanic vote. But it is precisely the influx of immigrants into small-town America that fueled the current national controversy. It dominated much of the CNN/YouTube debate where average citizens ask questions via video.
(Soundbite of CNN/YouTube debate)
Unidentified Man #1: Will you pledge tonight, if elected president, to veto any immigration bill that involves amnesty for those that come here illegally? Thank you.
Mr. ANDERSON COOPER (Moderator, CNN/YouTube Republican Debate): Senator Thompson?
LUDDEN: The reference was to a Senate bill last year that would have stepped up enforcement but also legalized millions of immigrants already here. John McCain co-sponsored the bill and it has hurt his candidacy.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Presidential Candidate): Yes, of course. And we never proposed amnesty. But, you know, this whole debate…
Mr. COOPER: Come on, please, let him answer.
Sen. MCCAIN: You know, this whole debate saddens me a little bit.
LUDDEN: Despite his passionate support for a sweeping immigration overhaul, McCain has backed off, saying only enforcement measures should be taken for now. That may be about a political necessity. But Republican pollster Whit Ayres says zeal for enforcement isn't the whole story with the party's voters.
Mr. WHIT AYRES (Republican Pollster): They don't want a candidate who comes across as a fire-breathing, anti-Hispanic hater. We have one of those and he has bombed. The last survey we did in South Carolina, Tom Tancredo got zero percent. Not a single respondent picked him for president.
LUDDEN: Ayres notes the one candidate who has really soared in standings, Mike Huckabee, did so while taking the most temperate tone on immigration. But then he started getting badgered for it by rival Mitt Romney as in this Iowa TV ad.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Man #2: Mike Huckabee supported in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants. Huckabee even supported taxpayer-funded scholarships for illegal aliens. On immigration, the choice matters.
LUDDEN: In a head-spinning few days, Huckabee performed a political version of "Extreme Makeover." He issued a nine-point immigration plan lifted largely from a group that seeks to reduce all immigration, legal and otherwise. He picked up an endorsement from the founder of the Minuteman Project, apologizing for earlier questioning the group's freelance border-watch brigades. And Huckabee put out his own ad on immigration with no mention of his oft-stated support for giving illegal immigrants a way to become citizens.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Arkansas Governor; Republican Presidential Candidate): We need to make it clear that we will say no to amnesty and no to sanctuary cities.
Our borders have to be secured. No amnesty.
And our government has failed us…
LUDDEN: Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani have had similar conversions. Giuliani, who once championed hard-working illegal immigrants as welcome in New York, recently said he would have deported them all if he could have. Some GOP strategists worry the party risks alienating Hispanics, the country's largest and fastest-growing minority. But if that doesn't change the tone of the debate, other pressures might.
Professor JACK PITNEY (Government, Claremont McKenna College): Well, in the general campaign they have to be careful.
LUDDEN: Jack Pitney teaches government at Claremont McKenna College. He says immigration may be red hot among primary voters, but it falls in importance among Republicans nationally. And the bigger GOP tent includes more libertarian and business-oriented factions, which see immigration as economic necessity.
Prof. PITNEY: So I would expect in the general election Republicans will still talk about immigration. But we'll see the red-meat appeals confined to direct-mail pieces sent to Republican base voters.
LUDDEN: So in public at least, moderate may come back into fashion.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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