Whose GOP is it anyway?

While Republican leaders and the Bush campaign promise to reach out to Latinos, other factions in the party renew their immigrant bashing.

Published January 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

While the Republican National Committee gathered in San Jose last week to put a kinder, gentler face on the GOP, anti-immigrant rumblings in Iowa, Arizona and California underscored just how difficult that could be.

Just as party strategists were unveiling a new marketing push aimed at Hispanic voters, very different ads were running in Iowa, paid for by the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

In one newspaper ad, words printed over a dumpster read: "When those candidates tell you how unspoiled and beautiful Iowa is, ask them what they're going to do to keep it that way. Most likely you'll have to give them the answer: reduce immigration."

Another ad described the Iowa town of Storm Lake -- home to a large meatpacking plant employing hundreds of Latinos -- as a town "where quality of life is but a memory."

The simultaneous unveiling of the new RNC spot and the ads bankrolled by FAIR provide a good snapshot of what the GOP will have to overcome if it hopes to genuinely pursue a "national Hispanic strategy," as GOP strategist Lance Tarrance advised last week.

But it was not just in Iowa where anti-immigration advocates were making waves last week. In Arizona, GOP exile Pat Buchanan was decrying the "invasion" at the Mexican border. And in California, anti-immigration forces were busy gathering signatures and press attention for a ballot measure that may yet prove central to the 2000 fall campaign, and a thorn in the side of the GOP.

Sources inside the Republican National Committee dismissed the Iowa ads as "xenophobic," originating from a "fringe, radical group." Gov. Bush himself decried the ads, and even called for increased legal immigration levels in an interview with an Iowa newspaper.

"The major parties want to run and hide," said Dan Stein, executive director of FAIR. "These candidates want to talk about problems with education and health care, but they don't want to talk about immigration as a serious contributor to those problems. It's like talking about the trade deficit without talking about China."

Stein said the issue of immigration pits the nation's pro-immigration, moneyed elite against blue-collar workers whose jobs and wages are being threatened by continued immigration. "Bush is claiming he is a more attractive candidate because he doesn't have this streak of [vitriol] in his political rhetoric. The truth is, the Republican base is to the right of Pat Buchanan on the immigration issue. The people who want the issue to go away are the immigrants themselves and the people who use them -- lawyers and politicians."

That sentiment was echoed Wednesday by Pat Buchanan in Arizona, where the Reform Party presidential front-runner walked through a hole in the Arizona-Mexico border fence with a flock of reporters in tow. Buchanan called illegal immigration "an outright invasion of the United States of America," and called for legal immigration to be cut back by as much as 70 percent. "America is balkanizing like never before," he said. "In too many cases, the American melting pot has been reduced to a simmer."

The good news for Republicans trying to distance themselves from this type of rhetoric is that Buchanan is now spitting fire from outside the confines of the Republican Party. "Every time he says stuff like this, he just shows more and more that he no longer has a home in the Republican Party," one Republican said.

But just six years ago, similar rhetoric was employed by one of the GOP's rising stars, California Gov. Pete Wilson. Faced with early daunting poll numbers, Wilson latched his political horse to Proposition 187, a ballot measure that promised to eliminate social benefits for illegal immigrants, and force children who were in the United States without documentation to be removed from public schools. The measure passed overwhelmingly and Wilson coasted to reelection.

But earlier this year, the courts overturned the measure. Anti-187 backlash is seen as the chief reason the state's Latino voting population has doubled since 1994, and the Democrats' successful demonization of Wilson has been blamed for these new Latino voters voting overwhelmingly for Democrats.

Under the new leadership of Bush and his campaign strategists, Republicans are trying to put the legacy of Wilson and 187 behind them. But Bush strategists are already preparing for another California initiative which will likely appear on the November ballot. The measure, which has been dubbed "Son of 187," would essentially do the same thing as its 1994 forebear, but is crafted to pass constitutional muster, therefore making it "court-proof."

But in the wake of a new nonpartisan poll showing Bush's Latino California support hovering around 40 percent -- by comparison, gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren received 19 percent of the Latino vote in 1998 -- the GOP front-runner has to be worried about a Republican-supported measure that would antagonize Latino voters again.

"That issue came up on the Bush Latino strategy call [Wednesday] night," said one California Republican with ties to the Bush campaign. "I think it's a natural for him to come out strongly against it. The strategy will be 'As a governor, I have said this is a federal issue, not a state issue. As president, I will deal humanely with immigration policy.'"

"My overall gut on it is that it's not helpful and that it's very counterproductive," echoed Frank Guerra, who crafted Bush's Latino media campaign. "Many other Republicans in and outside of California agree with that assessment."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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