Tap Dancing on the Illegal Immigration Issue

Given the explosive attitudes toward illegal immigration in nearby Arizona and the three million or so illegal immigrants in California, you would think that the candidates for Governor would embrace Arizona's throw-the-rascals-out sentiment.

The two Republican candidates have pushed on the issue, although with differences. Steve Poizner has endorsed Arizona's new tough law. Meg Whitman has rejected the law, although she has modified her old road-to-citizenship approach to a position that now endorses tougher border interdiction and is "100-percent against" amnesty. 

Democrat Jerry Brown, though circumspect, has spoken out for comprehensive immigration reform, although he does not favor granting drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Poizner and Whitman may be running a risk on immigration in that their proposals seem to part from California's mainstream. In fact, most Californians are at peace with the immigration question, according to recent public opinion surveys. 

A Public Policy Institute of California poll taken last March finds that two-thirds of all registered California voters believe that illegal immigrants who have worked here for two years or more should be given the chance to apply for citizenship. 

Even more striking is the breakdown by political party affiliation. Nearly four out of five (78 percent) registered Democrats favor the proposal, along with 68 percent of all independents.  Even among Republicans, nearly half (49 percent) agree with the eventual citizenship objective.

That's powerful data, considering the extent to which the Republican gubernatorial candidates have argued for deportation and no citizenship.  

The approaches of Republican candidates Poizner and Whitman underscore the general conundrum for Republicans in 2010. The two are tripping over themselves to pass the "most conservative" test, a strategy that caters to the likelihood of conservatives dominating the Republican turnout on June 8.  But the more they swing to the right on this and other issues, Whitman and Poizner harm their chances for the fall when the general election turnout will be flooded by moderates.  

Still, there's another factor: the growing Latino vote. Once was the time when Latinos were on the periphery of political participation in California, but that's not the case anymore. Though a quarter of the state's population in 1990, Latinos accounted for only 5 percent of the vote. The number tripled to 14% in 1998 and doubled again to 29 percent in 2008. The overwhelming proportion has gone Democratic most of the time. The illegal immigration issue is particularly important to this group of Californians. 

All of which leads one to ask: What are Whitman and Poizner thinking, given this huge block of voters?  Are they just writing them off? Perhaps we'll know more after June 8.

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