Immigration Issue Cost GOP Votes?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," March 30, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Republicans have spent years working to court the Hispanic vote, but could their split on illegal immigration end up costing them votes? Let's ask Larry Sabato, director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Larry, as you know, the public generally wants the border enforced rigidly, wants illegals out. Yet politicians are trying to figure out amnesty plans and guest-worker plans and they don't sound too serious about enforcing the border. Who's this going to hurt?

LARRY SABATO, UVA CENTER FOR POLITICS DIRECTOR: Potentially, John, it's really going to hurt the Republicans. They need to remember that the reason, one of the reasons why President Bush went from being a deficit of a half a million votes in 2000 to winning by three million votes was because his 35 percent of the Hispanic and Latino vote in 2000 became 40 to 42 percent in 2004. The Republicans — and especially because President Bush is focused on them — the Republicans have made major gains among Hispanics and Latinos. They really risk if they are presented as being anti-Hispanic and Latino. They risk those gains and they can't survive in the 21st century without winning more Hispanics and Latinos.

GIBSON: Well, what are Republicans supposed to do when their base evidently is so adamant about immigration and yet they see that they're alienating potential voters?

SABATO: What are they supposed to do? Well, that's their problem.

I'll tell you, if they were smart, I think they would put Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida as their spokesperson. He's the only immigrant member of the Senate. He can't run for president. He's the only senator who wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror and doesn't see a president. But he is an individual who has been strongly suggesting to his fellow senators on the Republican side that if they continue presenting themselves as conservative opponents of immigration without any kind of guest-worker provision, that they're going to risk the gains politically they've made in the past few years.

GIBSON: Is a guest-worker provision enough or do politicians have to go all the way and figure out a way for these immigrants to become citizens?

SABATO: Guest worker is just the beginning. I think they do have to work out some way at least in the medium term or long term for these illegal immigrants to have the opportunity to become citizens.

And also, John, as always, the language of politics is important. If you use harsh language you're going to alienate people. If you use language that is inclusive and understanding, then you can bring people in. The Democrats know this. They've been doing a better job on immigration than the Republicans. And the Democrats could gain both in 2006 and 2008 if this continues.

GIBSON: Well, once again Larry, I know you're the professor, but let's just thrust you in the role of adviser for a moment. There you are, a Republican politician. You don't want to alienate all these potential voters. Some of them might be illegals who've managed to get registered to vote anyway. And then you've got your base screaming bloody murder, "These people have to get out. The border's got to be enforced. You can't let them run amok." How do you thread the needle?

SABATO: Well, there's no way you can convince the more activist members of the base. If they're emotional about the issue, the debate is lost with them. But there are others in the middle who are reasonable and who are going to listen to the facts and the facts of politics are very clear. African-Americans are heavily Democratic. Asian-Americans lean Democratic. Whites are Republican but only about 55 to 58 percent Republican. Republicans cannot keep the presidency as the nation diversifies in the 21st century without at least 40 percent of Hispanics and Latinos and by mid-century that would have to be 45 percent of Hispanics and Latinos.

GIBSON: Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, thanks a lot.

SABATO: Thank you, John.

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