TUCSON - Republican congressional candidate Randy Graf found an unlikely applause line while speaking from a town square gazebo at an Aug. 14 campaign rally in Tucson. "Anybody watch [CNN Anchor] Lou Dobbs?" asked Graf, referencing the protectionistic anchor on the liberal cable network.
The crowd met the inquiry with applause before Graf launched into a point on illegal immigration. "Ask [the other candidates] specifically what they would do to secure the border," he said. "And don't let them talk about the impact to the economy because we need the cheap labor. There ain't nothing cheap about it." It's a mantra that Dobbs commonly uses to bash President George W. Bush, who often says America needs the cheap labor of illegal immigrants.
Graf, who is running for Congress this fall to replace retiring 11-term Tucson Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, served only as the warmup act at his own campaign rally. The main attraction, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, came soon after to deliver more odd applause lines. Tancredo has made a name for himself as the fiery opponent of immigration reform that doesn't put tight new restrictions on immigrants first. "Honestly, until we have a president of the United States who's willing to enforce the law that's on the books, what good is it to pass more laws?" More applause.
Pro Lou Dobbs. Anti George W. Bush. And these are Republicans? They could more easily be called immigration hawks. Dissatisfied with the White House's slow and measured reaction to the influx of illegal aliens, their forces are looking to leaders like Tancredo, who with a white suit coat over a black zip-up jumper and his Italian flair looks like he could be the godfather of the immigration reform movement.
How many other people could draw Minuteman founder Chris Simcox out of the desert and to stage right? Simcox, himself a leader to many anti--illegal immigration activists, didn't just watch Tancredo-he videotaped the event.
But the rhetoric is reaching many Arizona conservatives where they are-tired of the burden illegal immigrants are placing on their state and local governments. Many came to the Tucson rally to see not only their own home-grown border protection candidate but also Tancredo. Superheated immigration politics reveal deep divisions in a Republican Party already wobbling toward 2006 midterm elections in which the party stands to lose one or both houses of Congress.
Polls indicate that, next to the Iraq war, American voters care most about the flood of millions of illegal immigrants into the nation every year. Recent Census Bureau data show that the number of immigrants living in the United States has increased by 16 percent in the last five years, with nearly 27 million immigrants coming from nearby Mexico. Perhaps like no other issue, immigration pits Republican against Republican as the party struggles to find a cohesive message.
On one side, President Bush's proposal for a guest-worker program to deal with the more than 10 million illegal immigrants thought to be inside the United States already has drawn support from GOP moderates and conservatives. But Tancredo helped lead a coalition of House members to pass HR 4437, an enforcement-only bill that sparked mass protests in Latino communities across the nation. Meanwhile, Democrats either have supported plans for a guest-worker program to allow paths to citizenship for the illegals already here or have quietly supported true amnesty.
Despite year-long battles over legislation, Washington lawmakers continue to try to hammer out a compromise somewhere between the hardened positions. But the only thing moving appears to be the traveling road show of House subcommittees holding hearings on illegal immigration and stump appearances by Tancredo. Immigration reform remains stuck in negotiations between the House and Senate leading right up to the election.
And Tancredo is just fine with the legislation remaining stuck. He says he'd rather Congress go into the 2006 elections empty-handed than to see President Bush sign a bill that would do anything but impose the strictest enforcement rules possible.
It's another reason why Tancredo has become persona non grata at the White House. As he tells it-and he tells it often-the big rift between the conservative and the White House came as a result of an April 2002 meeting with the Washington Times editorial board.
Tancredo launched into a trademark anti--illegal immigration rant at the president: "Unless we do something significant to control our borders, we're going to have another event with someone waltzing across the borders. Then the blood of the people killed will be on this administration and this Congress."
Once printed, the comments led presidential advisor Karl Rove to phone Tancredo, calling him a "traitor," according to Tancredo. The congressman described the argument as a 40-minute shouting match as he drove from his home in Alexandria to his Capitol office: "I said, Karl, let me ask you something. If it happens the way I say it, who do you think Americans should blame? The Boy Scouts? The Elks Club? It's us!" Tancredo recalled later that Rove forbade him from meeting with the president, saying not ever again to "darken the doorstep of the White House."
Being dressed down by Rove may have corralled other GOP congressmen. But it only seems to have emboldened Tancredo. In his address at the Tucson rally, he called fellow Republican Rep. Mike Pence a good man before taking swipes at the Indiana lawmaker's plan for a modified guest-worker program -something Tancredo labeled amnesty. He charged conservative Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, another fellow Republican, with being "as left as they come" on immigration.
Still, Tancredo remains sought-after, particularly in border-state races, and his popularity is growing. He says if no serious border enforcement candidates emerge for the 2008 GOP presidential primaries, he'll launch his own presidential campaign, noting he was the surprise victor in a Michigan straw poll in June, beating out conventional 2008 candidates like Sen. John McCain, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Graf invited the Colorado Republican down to Tucson specifically so that Tancredo could help him distinguish himself from the other Republicans running in the Sept. 12 primary for Arizona's 8th District. Tancredo joked with the Tucson crowd, "Everywhere you look there are politicians that are looking to 'secure the border.'"