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First clashes in Iowa set tone over immigration

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain lost ground to his presidential rivals over support for what his opponents called “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator John Edwards speaks during a community meeting at the City High School in Iowa City, Iowa in this November 19, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/Files

Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York stumbled in a recent debate when asked to define her position on illegal immigrants and drivers licenses.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who leads the Republican field in Iowa, had to backtrack on comments he once made that supported providing education for the children of illegal immigrants.

As campaigning builds for the Democratic and Republican nominations for the U.S. presidential election in November, taking a tough stance on illegal immigration has become vital to their chances of being selected to represent their parties.

“It is like taking an oath in blood,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the nonpartisan National Migration Institute think tank, of the scrabble by candidates to prove their bona fides on the issue before the January 3 Iowa caucuses.

“(This time around) everyone wants to know that candidates will have a position on illegal immigration,” he added.

The question of what to do with 12 million illegal immigrants has been a hot-button topic for months in the United States, where a bill seeking tougher enforcement and a path to legal status for many was killed by the U.S. Senate in June.

In Iowa it has joined concerns over the wobbly economy and handling of the war in Iraq as a defining issue at the start of the grueling state-by-state contests.

Other hopefuls who have had to come into line on illegal immigration in the Midwestern state include Republican Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who was shamed in recent weeks into firing a landscaper employing illegal immigrants who worked at his residence.

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Rudy Giuliani, whose lead in national polls has shrunk or in some cases disappeared, had to roll back his stated tolerance for illegal immigrants as New York’s Republican mayor after facing attacks that he provided them with sanctuary.

Analysts say illegal immigration became a key issue for candidates in the long, drawn-out race owing to the shifting demographics in the state hosting the first caucus.

“Iowa happens to be one of those states that has had a large influx of illegal immigrants in recent years, and when you go very fast from zero to 60, it has an impact,” said Tamar Jacoby, senior research fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank, who supported the bipartisan Senate immigration bill.

“We are starting out in an area where the campaign polls say go for broke, make hay on this,” she added.

SETTING THE TONE OF THE DEBATE

Iowa is just the first in a series of state-by-state contests to decide who will replace President George W. Bush following the November 4 presidential election.

While candidates are presently struggling to demonstrate their tough stance on illegal immigration, analysts say differences between the Democrats and Republicans will likely open up as the general election campaign begins following their respective party conventions in August and September.

“It’s too risky for the candidates to stick their necks out too far ... particularly in the primary season ... they see it almost as a no win situation,” said Bruce Merrill, a political analyst at Arizona State University.

“When the primaries are over, it will become more of a partisan issue,” he added.

Analysts say the Republicans are likely to reach out to their base with a hard line message hoping to parlay discontent over illegal immigration into votes in November, and will be unlikely to move back toward the middle ground.

“Now, McCain and Giuliani have given themselves some ability to run back to the center, but not much,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which backs immigration reform.

Democrats may soften their rhetoric in coming months to reach out to moderates seeking a pragmatic solution and to Hispanic voters, the country’s fastest growing bloc.

Editing by Andrea Hopkins and David Wiessler

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