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Republicans risk Latino ire with hard line on migrants
TUCSON, Arizona |
TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - When he ran for U.S. president two years ago, Republican John McCain told town hall meetings across the United States that illegal immigrants were "all God's children."
But at a church hall in Tucson last weekend, he spoke up for a tough new Arizona law that seeks to drive those undocumented busboys and landscapers from the desert state where he is battling to hold on to his U.S. Senate seat.
"The polls show 60, 70, 80 percent of the American people support Arizonans saying 'secure our borders,'" McCain said to a clatter of applause.
Arizona's migrant crackdown has hurled immigration back to the fore in the run-up to the November congressional elections. And embracing it has become a litmus test for Republican primary candidates facing scrutiny from the party's resurgent right wing.
A war hero who ran for president against Barack Obama in 2008, McCain styled himself as a 'maverick' who was prepared to reach across the aisle to craft a comprehensive immigration bill with the late Democrat Edward Kennedy. But that was 2007.
Facing J.D. Hayworth, a fiery former congressman who charges McCain is soft on immigration and has spent too long in Washington, the four-term Senate veteran has transformed himself into a hawkish partisan on the issue.
"Peoples' homes are being invaded, their property is being wrecked, the wildlife refuges are being harmed in some cases irreparably because of human trafficking," McCain told voters in Tucson, ticking off the dangers of open borders.
McCain said he wants more surveillance drones, Border Patrol stations and National Guard troops to choke off the border, and harangued the Obama administration on the need for completing 700 miles of fencing ordered by Congress.
The hardening stance on immigration is mirrored in California's Republican gubernatorial primary race, where front-runner Meg Whitman has adopted a tough posture on undocumented workers after attacks from rival Steve Poizner.
Whitman, former chief executive of eBay Inc, says she is "100 percent against amnesty, no exception" and has been consistent in her position, although a Poizner ad shows her discussing a system for illegal immigrants to go to the end of the line and pay a fine to become legal.
'LURCH TO THE RIGHT'
But it is McCain's pirouette on immigration that has confounded commentators most.
Writing in the Arizona Republic newspaper last month, columnist Ed Montini dubbed McCain "John McHayworth," charging that he had not just adopted his rival's harsh rhetoric, but had "morphed" into him.
Conservative Michelle Malkin, wrote that she needed a Dramamine, a nausea medicine, to cover McCain's re-election bid, saying that his "desperate lurch to the right" induced "more motion sickness than a Disney Land teacup."
But despite the carping, the shift may be helping McCain as he heads into the August 24 state primary.
A Rasmussen Reports poll on May 19 showed McCain with a 12-point lead over his rival, up from five points a month earlier. And some voters say they are being won over by his renewed vigor on immigration and border security.
"I don't think he's given up on the border," said Terry Korte, a registered Republican who sat in the front row at the church hall rally in Tucson to hear McCain on the issues, and came away persuaded.
"I'm praying that he will get elected because I know that he will fight" to secure it, she added.
The tough message on migrants and the border may be just what Republican voters want to hear in Arizona's primary, and in the June 8 primary in California.
But analysts say the party risks damaging its already strained relationship with Hispanics, a bloc with growing clout in U.S. politics who voted for Obama in 2008 by a two-to-one margin.
"It could be that Republicans dodge the bullet this year because Latinos are still a relatively small share of the electorate ... plus there's a strong anti-Obama anti-Democrat wave that they're going to be able to ride," said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist.
"But they can't afford, if they're going to be a viable party in the United States in the future, to be only getting 15 to 20 percent of the Latino vote. That just isn't enough," he added.
The signs that Hispanics are getting switched off by Republican anger over immigration are already clear in Arizona, where McCain courted Latino voters two years ago with talk of shared family values and compassion for the undocumented.
"We don't want to cut and run ... but it is harder to register Hispanics over to the Republican Party," said DeeDee Blase, the founder of a group called "Somos Republicans," Spanish for "We Are Republicans."
Blase said Latino Republicans were hurt by McCain's support for the state migrant law.
In the primary, she said, "we are going to hold our nose and vote for him."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Mohammad Zargham)
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