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.
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.
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’
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.
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.
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.”