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94 Days to Decide: Arizona Law Thrusts Immigration to Forefront of 2010 Races

Protesters Wave Flags

The daylong demonstrations across downtown Phoenix came despite a federal judge's last-minute decision to block the most controversial parts of the measure. (Fox News)

Republicans and President Obama agree that this week's decision by a federal judge to defang Arizona's illegal immigration law shines a spotlight on the need for an immigration reform debate that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently declared dead for the year. 

But the two sides are unlikely to sort it out on the floor of the House and Senate, instead turning the matter into a talking point ahead of this fall's midterm elections.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has argued that the Wednesday ruling by Judge Susan Bolton demonstrates the need to listen to the president, who pledge to make the immigration initiative a first-year priority but has seen it slip through the sizeable cracks in congressional cooperation. 

"I think we will talk about the need for everyone involved to step up and solve that problem," Gibbs said about immigration. "I hope that everybody that's running for office at a federal level this fall will talk about, after the judge has ruled that this is the purview of the federal government, I hope each of these candidates will discuss what they think and what the federal government must do to deal with it."

Democrats are facing a negative political climate this year as anti-incumbent fever sweeps the country. And while the ruling gave Obama a first-round victory in court, it may have breathed new life into the Republican effort to regain control of Congress as the renewed spotlight on illegal immigration helps fire up the conservative base for GOP candidates, campaign strategists in both parties said this week.

Bolton's ruling blocked provisions of the Arizona law, including a section that requires officers to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws.

The ruling showed that the Obama administration, which sued Arizona to block the law's implementation, had a viable legal argument that the response to illegal immigration should be national, not piecemeal. But Bolton's ruling also underscored the fact that a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House have failed to find a comprehensive solution to the problem.

Some Republicans have pounced on the ruling.

The Republican Governors Association issued a fundraising e-mail from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, asking for help in the ongoing fight to implement the law. And Colorado Senate hopeful Jane Norton's campaign conducted robocalls telling Republican voters of her support for the measure.

When asked whether the White House is concerned about about Republicans seizing on the Arizona ruling for political gain, Gibbs artfully dodged and made a pitch for comprehensive immigration overhaul.

"Look, in terms of the politics, the president has made decisions since coming into office ... that he didn't make based on polling. I think if that were the case, we'd be looking for a new pollster," he said."

"The president and the Justice Department believed that what we filed was the right thing to do and the right thing to do now based on that ruling is what will be harder, and that is comprehensive immigration reform," Gibbs added. "It's been done before and it can be done again if those that are involved in this are willing to be part of the solution. And I think that's the next step."

While it's unclear how the ruling will play out politically, either this fall or beyond, it appears Republicans will be able to campaign for tougher immigration enforcement without potentially embarrassing mistakes by police officers demanding documents from U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent, fallout predicted by opponents of the law.

Many politicians in Washington kept their distance from immigration this week.Top Republican lawmakers and party officials made statements about jobs, energy, taxes, health care, campaign finance and passport fraud, but there was hardly a whisper about immigration.

Democrats were nearly as quiet, aside from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus calling for a comprehensive solution to the issue.

Joanna Burgos of the National Republican Congressional Committee said the judge's ruling may help GOP candidates in close races in Arizona and south Texas. In these areas, where some illegal immigrants have smuggled drugs and committed violent crimes, she said, the issue is seen as a matter of security far more than one of civil rights or economic well-being.

Elsewhere this fall, Burgos said, jobs, health care and perhaps energy will probably overshadow immigration.

Washington-based GOP consultant Ron Bonjean agreed that immigration will not dominate the fall elections, although he predicted some Republican candidates will try to show "that the problem needs to be solved."

Bonjean said Republicans must proceed carefully with Hispanic voters. Republicans can hurt themselves for years to come if they appear unduly hostile to immigrants who came here illegally years ago, or seem indifferent to the rights of those here legally.

"The immigration issue is so sensitive," Bonjean said. "While Republicans are using it to fire up conservatives and independents, they'll have to find ways to talk about it without alienating Hispanic voters."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday that Democrats are wrong to say Republicans are hiding prejudices behind the banner of national safety.

"There are some people who think that it's a trick, that when we say it's border security, that we're not interested in a broader immigration bill," Cornyn said in an interview at the Capitol. "I stand ready, willing and able to engage, but it's going to take some presidential leadership."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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