For GOP, an issue to pull in voters

Pa.'s Santorum, others pressing hard-line stance on immigration

October 18, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- Thomas Trautman is just a few doors down from the Mexican ice cream shop on State Street, within view of the sign in Spanish advertising lawyers for hire, when he begins to vent his frustration about illegal immigration.

"You can't make laws for only some people to obey, and right now, we've got people right here in this town that can not only break the law, but then they can collect benefits and get special privileges," says Trautman, 64, gesturing sullenly at the cozy main drag, less than a mile from the mushroom farms that have drawn thousands of Mexican immigrants to this corner of southeastern Pennsylvania for work.

His anger about undocumented immigrants is one reason that Trautman, a Republican and retired trucker who says he's fed up with both parties, is pretty sure he'll vote for Sen. Rick Santorum in one of this year's most closely watched Senate contests.

Santorum, a conservative two-term Republican who is considered among his party's most vulnerable incumbents this year, is counting on such voters to give his campaign a much-needed jolt in the dwindling days before the midterm balloting. Lagging behind his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey Jr., the state treasurer and son of Pennsylvania's popular former governor, Santorum has seized on illegal immigration as a key issue in his fight for survival, pushing his hard-line stance as a top reason he deserves re-election.

In states and towns like this one far from the nation's borders, Republicans are flogging the hot-button issue of immigration as they troll for votes, stirring a potent election-year stew of fears about security and anxiety about jobs and the economy.

Republican strategists say a tough immigration stance appeals to their base and might have the potential to attract crossover voters, particularly middle-class white conservatives who are upset at the notion that illegal immigrants might enjoy taxpayer-funded government benefits.

But there's little sign that most voters are listening. People are torn on the complicated issue, and many say it's low on their list of concerns this election year, behind the war and economic worries. Public polls show no more than about one-fifth of voters name it among their top concerns.

G. Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania political scientist and pollster, said immigration falls near the bottom of voters' priority lists here - less than 10 percent consider it a top issue - but "more Pennsylvanians are on Santorum's side on this than they are on [his] other positions, so if he can make it more important, he may benefit from it."

Other Republicans are trying a similar strategy.

In Minnesota, Senate candidate Mark Kennedy has run TV and radio ads that claim his opponent Amy Klobuchar supports giving Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants. Reps. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania and Chris Chocola of Indiana have promoted their opposition to President Bush's plan to give some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and have called their campaign rivals backers of "amnesty." In Tennessee, Bob Corker accuses his Senate campaign opponent, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., of opposing border security measures.

Republican strategists say the argument allows candidates to do two important things: appeal to demoralized conservatives in both parties who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration and show independence from Bush, whose popularity is sagging. In Santorum's case, the immigration issue has an added benefit: the potential to be a wedge issue among social conservatives who might otherwise consider supporting Casey because he shares the senator's anti-abortion rights position.

Santorum has spent millions airing a TV ad that bashes Casey for supporting a Senate-passed measure that followed Bush's approach, calling his position "an insult to every law-abiding, tax-paying American." He created a Web site called CaseyforAmnesty.com, where visitors can buy bumper stickers and lawn signs bearing the site's name; a dozen of them dotted a highway exit ramp last weekend in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Santorum had Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, who drew national headlines for enacting an anti-illegal immigrant ordinance in his northeastern Pennsylvania town, record a phone message to voters promoting Santorum's immigration stance.

Casey denies that he favors amnesty, which typically refers to allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal permanent residency.

The Democrat said "it's a big lie" that Santorum tells to obscure the Republican Party's inaction on border security and failures on other important issues such as upward spiraling health care costs and the war in Iraq.

But Casey was concerned enough about the charge to cut his own TV spot, which began airing this month, faulting Santorum for voting against measures to secure the border and punish employers who hire illegal workers. "Bob Casey opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants," the announcer says.

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