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Illegal Immigration Fuels Barletta's Run

By Reid Wilson

For the past few cycles, Republicans have relied heavily on illegal immigration a wedge issue aimed at driving their base to the polls. In many regions of the country, though, it has been an issue that has caused more harm than good: Business advocates recognize they need immigrant labor to drive the economy, and Hispanic voters are turning away from the GOP due to what many feel is overly harsh rhetoric. Few, in fact, can point to a race in which a Republican candidate seriously benefited from focusing on immigration.

But in some places the issue still carries resonance. In Northeastern Pennsylvania, the blue collar towns of Scranton and Hazelton carry a populist streak that has made border enforcement - and one of its prime advocates - a hot topic. Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta, nationally known for passing a measure that prohibited hiring or renting homes to illegal immigrants (the law was later ruled unconstitutional) and for making English the town's official language, is running against incumbent Democrat Paul Kanjorski in a district Republicans see as one of their best hopes for a pickup opportunity this year.

Democrats face what could shape up to be a banner year, both nationally and in Pennsylvania, as they target still more seats after big wins in 2006. But, some observers believe, Barletta could be an exception. "This is a scenario, and the scenario is that Lou Barletta will buck the national trend by riding in on his reputation that he's built on the immigration issue," said Nathan Gonzales, a national analyst with the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Illegal immigration is what voters in the district "want to talk to me the most about," Barletta told RealClearPolitics. "Illegal immigration is not the only issue, but it's the fact that I had the courage to stand up and fight something that was affecting my community." The two-term mayor, after passing the ordinances, has been featured prominently on cable channels like Fox News and CNN discussing his favorite crusade.

Barletta's heightened profile will help boost his campaign; in his first bid against Kanjorski in 2002, Barletta spent $566,000 as a virtually unknown candidate, compared with nearly $1.2 million spent by Kanjorski. That year, a good one for Republicans, Kanjorski beat Barletta by a solid thirteen-point margin, though that was a closer margin than any challenger had come in Kanjorski's twelve terms. This year, Barletta says the attention he's earned has made him better-known and makes his fundraising performance less important. He estimates it will take between $1 million and $1.5 million to defeat his Democratic rival. It's good that Barletta thinks he needs to raise less; he trails Kanjorski in the money chase by a huge margin, with just $154,000 on hand compared with Kanjorski's $1.83 million.

In addition to money, Kanjorski has other advantages. The district gave John Kerry a six-point advantage in 2004, and while Barack Obama lost the 11th by a wide margin to Hillary Clinton in the April 22 primary, outside observers think he will perform markedly better come November (Barletta disagrees: "Hillary Clinton got 75% of the vote here, so I do not believe Obama will help Congressman Kanjorski," he said, "especially in light of his comments about Pennsylvania, about clinging to guns and religion."). "Paul Kanjorski has served the district well," spokesman Ed Mitchell said. The Congressman himself declined to be interviewed Monday; Mitchell said he had several events in the district. And the incumbent is no slouch on the immigration issue himself. National Democrats provided a list of more than a dozen votes Kanjorski has taken on immigration throughout his career that would look more at home on a Republican's permanent record.

Still, a poll conducted for Barletta's campaign shows the Republican may not be out of contention yet. The Susquehanna Polling & Research survey, conducted March 27-29 among 400 likely voters in the district, showed Barletta leading Kanjorski by a 47%-42% margin. The poll, released yesterday, made Democrats and outside observers think Barletta is looking for a financial boost in advance of the close of the second fundraising quarter on June 30. Democrats dismissed the poll as out of date, though Pennsylvania observers did credit the polling firm, as being reputable, though partisan.

If Barletta relies solely on illegal immigration, even his own supporters say he won't be addressing the district's number one issue. "It's not so much that the immigration issue is on people's minds," said James Lee, Barletta's pollster. "The personal credentials that Lou has brought to that issue," he said, referring to the measures in Hazelton, "that's what voters are responding to." While the economy and the war in Iraq continue to be top issues, immigration could play a role. "You'll probably see Barletta weave immigration into the economy when he's talking about jobs," said Gonzales.

"Barletta has a national profile with his immigration stand," said Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College. But "the news on immigration is virtually non-existent, given the economy, even the war in Iraq." "I don't think immigration is going to be the defining issue in this race," agreed Gonzales. "But I think that if Barletta can use the immigration issue to help his fundraising, it could have an impact."

Republicans hope there is another issue that will impact the contest: Kanjorski himself. In recent months, the congressman has been forced to issue an apology for comparing Barletta to white supremacist David Duke. During a town hall meeting in August, 2007, Kanjorski said Democrats had "sort of stretched the facts" on their ability to end the war in Iraq during the 2006 elections, comments for which Republicans jumped on him. "This race will be about Kanjorski, and if he continues to stick his foot in his mouth, Barletta has a chance to win," said House Race Hotline editor Tim Sahd. "Immigration will be a big stick for Barletta to hit Kanjorski, but in the end, Kanjorski's going to have to lose it himself. And if the past few months are any proof, he has shown that he's perfectly capable of doing that."

"The mood of the country in itself, the American people are angry, and they're angry at both Republicans and Democrats," Barletta said. "There is a true mood for change right now." But while Barletta thinks he can take advantage of that mood for change, he may be approaching it the wrong way. "As a whole, this is not a big state where illegal immigrants have moved into," Madonna said. "As a vote-getting device, [illegal immigration] just doesn't strike me as something that's getting it done."

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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