Republicans talk tough against illegal immigration
Sun Dec 9, 2007 9:24pm EST
By Steve Holland
MIAMI (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates stuck to their tough line against illegal immigration at a Spanish-language debate on Sunday, a stance that could spell trouble for them with Hispanic voters in next year's election.
Hispanic-Americans had backed President George W. Bush's plan to grant illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship and watched in dismay as conservatives torpedoed it last summer.
Given the outrage over Bush's proposal to give illegal immigrants a temporary worker status, the overriding Republican position is to vow to improve control over the U.S. border with Mexico and insist that illegal immigrants not be allowed to get ahead of prospective legal immigrants.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney defended his firing last week of a landscaping company that cared for the lawn at his home, saying he terminated the contract with the company because it had employed illegal immigrants even after he had told the company "in no uncertain terms" to stop the practice.
"We're going to end illegal immigration to protect legal immigration," said Romney.
Even Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose campaign almost collapsed because he took a more compassionate approach toward illegal immigration, spoke of the need for better border enforcement.
"We cannot reward illegal behavior. We have to fix the border," McCain said, while adding: "We cannot allow this nation to be inhumane or without love and compassion."
The debate, sponsored by Univision, dealt largely with issues important to Hispanic voters, and was a far more gentlemanly affair than some of the recent Republican encounters.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had a bitter exchange with Romney at the last debate in November over whether either of them had turned a blind eye to illegal immigration, seemed to try to avoid a repeat of that fracas.
He said of illegal immigration: "This is a situation where none of us have been perfect. All of us have been struggling with this for a long time."
The debate came at a tense time in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
LATINO SWING VOTE?
Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, has vaulted past Romney to take the lead in many opinion polls in critical Iowa and taken over second place in other national polls behind front-runner Giuliani in the quest to be the party's candidate in the November presidential vote.
On January 3, Iowa on begins the state-by-state battle to choose the Republican and Democratic candidates who will contest the November 2008 election for president.
A recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center said 9 percent of the American electorate in 2008 will be Latinos, but if the past is any guide Hispanics representing just 6.5 percent of the electorate will vote. Some experts believe Hispanics could be an important element in swing states.
Bush took 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his re-election race in 2004 but Republicans only drew 30 percent support in last year's congressional elections.
An anti-immigrant candidate, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, refused to attend the debate because he objected to the Spanish language format.
"I think some of the rhetoric that many Hispanics hear about illegal immigration makes some of them believe that we're not in favor or seek the support of Hispanic citizens in this country," said McCain.The candidates were largely in agreement on most issues, although a long-shot contender, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, drew some boos from the audience when he said he would be willing to talk to Venezuela's fiery anti-American president, Hugo Chavez.
Both McCain and Giuliani said they preferred to deal with Chavez as Spain's King Juan Carlos did recently, telling him "Why don't you shut up?"
"Chavez is acting like a dictator and he should be treated that way," Giuliani said.
The Republicans also talked tough on Cuba, saying they would maintain the U.S. trade embargo against the communist island.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, asked how he would handle Cuba differently since nine U.S. presidents had failed to dislodge Fidel Castro from power, drew laughter with his reply. "I'm going to make sure that he didn't survive 10 U.S. presidents," he said.
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/category/events/trail08/)
(Editing by Lori Santos and Todd Eastham)http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSN0933993820071210