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The Political Perils of Targeting Immigrants

By Kimberley Strassel

History students call it a teaching moment: A week before the general election in 1884, fiery Protestant minister Samuel D. Burchard warned about the perils of allowing his party to identify with "Romanism." Standing by his side in New York was Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine. Catholic voters were furious.

Mr. Blaine lost the state by 1,149 votes, and the election to Grover Cleveland. It then took Catholics 100 years to get over it, when Ronald Reagan finally convinced them to trust his party again.

Today's question is whether Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are providing future scholars with their own teaching moment. Their spitting row over illegal immigration continues to lead the news, given how little else there has been to fill the newspapers in these dreary August days. At its current momentum, it also threatens to become a case study in how nativism can drive a political party off a cliff.

For their part, both men would like to present this as nothing more than primary politics as usual. A vocal Republican minority is demanding tough talk on an issue that has inflamed its passions for most of this year. Who are these two front-runners to refuse? Immigration gives them an easy way to talk up their security credentials, while simultaneously keeping the conversation away from thornier questions about social issues, or Mormonism, or unsupportive children. It also allows them to distinguish themselves from that dastardly immigration reformer, John McCain.

Unfortunately for their party, what neither man can do is keep the rest of America from listening. And for every base Republican who is gratified by talk of ID cards and border patrols, there's an entire family of Hispanic immigrants who are absorbing the mean language of "sanctuary cities," "lawbreakers" and "deportation." Many of these folks are religious, entrepreneurial, and true believers in the American dream; as such, they're the biggest new voting potential the Republican Party has seen in ages. But a growing number, just like those Catholics of yore, are angered by the recent rhetoric and wondering why they should pull a lever for any party that would go out of its way to tag their community as the source of America's problems.

Here's some math for the numerically challenged at certain GOP campaigns: Bob Dole got 26% support from the Hispanic community and lost. George Bush in 2000 got in the mid-30s and barely made it to the White House. By 2004, the president had increased his share of that vote to close to 44%, and won decisively. That's because while Hispanics make up only about 7% to 8% of the vote nationally, they have far larger constituencies in key swing states. If Mr. Bush hadn't wooed them in Nevada this past election, John Kerry would now be running for a second term.

Mr. Giuliani, to his credit, seems to comprehend this at some level. The former New York mayor has done his share to escalate this ugly fight, though he's also refused to step back from his position that the country needs to provide some path to citizenship for today's illegal population. This is deliberate on his part, done with an eye toward moving back to the center and courting Hispanic votes in the general election. It also provides a contrast--at least for those paying attention--with Mr. Romney, whose own campaign hasn't yet managed to look beyond the short-term goal of using immigration to rile up primary state voters against opponents.

Supporters of both men like to point out that their favorites don't have any choice but to engage in the immigration fight. They note that one reason Mr. Bush was able to make a sincere plea for immigration reform in 2004, and thus win the hearts of many Hispanic voters, was that the topic wasn't yet at a full boil. The president wasn't getting skewered by his own base at town hall meetings.

True. But it's also true that there's a big difference between addressing the question of the border as part of a wider discussion about national security, and using immigrant-bashing as a campaign weapon against a foe. The former, Hispanic voters would tolerate--might even appreciate, given that many are concerned about terrorism and crime. The latter goes well beyond political necessity and straight into the realm of the offensive, of abusing immigrants for electoral gain. And you can bet the voting Hispanic public understands the difference.

The real worry for the eventual GOP nominee is that the party will so damage its reputation with Hispanic voters over the next few months that it will prove unable to connect on any other issue. Mr. Bush talked about immigration in 2004, but what earned him most of his support from the Hispanic community was his assurance that he, and his party, stood for them on the whole gamut of electoral questions. This resonated in particular with foreign-born immigrants, who are more socially conservative on issues such as abortion and marriage, who run small businesses and like tax cuts, and who are inordinately proud of their adopted country.

"George Bush ran in 2004 and said, 'I know you, I want you, I share values with you, I believe in the American dream,' and he got a lot of patriotic, pro-war, entrepreneurial Latinos to vote for him," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "Now here's the next generation of GOP leaders and their slogan is: 'We don't want you, and we don't like your family members that don't have papers yet. But we still want your vote.'" Charming message.

It's a message you can bet that either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be highlighting--on Spanish-language TV, in key states like Florida and Arizona--come this spring. Evidence suggests those ads, which will point out how hard certain Republicans fought against the recent immigration reform, might find a receptive audience. Local businessmen and evangelical leaders are already warning Republicans that their communities are angry, and ready to show it at the polls. Massey Villarreal, a leader at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was recently quoted as saying: "I've been trying to put my finger in the dam of Hispanics leaving the Republican Party. I can't anymore. I've run out of fingers."

Teaching moment? It's still too early to know. But Messrs. Romney and Giuliani could both do worse than to do a little history reading on that man who never was president, James Blaine.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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