Democrats leading their party's midterm election effort argued on Thursday that any Republican attempt to use immigration as a central campaign issue would backfire.

They cited Republican plans to hold hearings on illegal immigration around the country this summer, rather than passing immigration legislation in Congress, as a sign of the GOP strategy to motivate conservative voters.

"Republicans want to use this like Willie Horton in 1988 and gay marriage in 2004," said Sen. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "It's no secret they want to use immigration as a political cudgel."

The New York senator was referring to the Republicans use in 2004 of same-sex marriage to build conservative support and in 1988 of the case of Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. Horton was used in a racially tinged ad that put Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis on the defensive.

"There are more than 12 million illegal immigrants in this country because the federal government has failed to enforce the laws," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Their strategy is not going to work as long as we stick to our message."

The GOP-controlled Congress has been unable to agree on immigration legislation. The House passed a bill that emphasized border enforcement and criminalized those who assist immigrants. The Senate passed a bill that combined border enforcement with creation of a guest-worker program.

"They can't get an agreement, so they're running around the country blaming each other," Emanuel said.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean told a group of Hispanics Wednesday that Democrats will not use immigration — specifically "immigrant bashing and scapegoating" — to divide the country in the midterms.

Two House elections earlier this month have sent mixed signals about how the illegal immigration issue will affect candidates.

— San Diego Republican Brian Bilbray cited his staunch opposition to illegal immigration as the top factor in winning the seat of ousted Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who left office because of a bribery scandal.

— Rep. Chris Cannon said his solid victory in Utah's Republican primary is good news for President Bush and those seeking a consensus on immigration policy this year. Cannon supports President Bush's proposal for a guest-worker program but also voted for the House bill.

Republicans dismissed the Democrats' comments on immigration.

"We plan on running our races district by district on local issues," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Democrats are very focused on trying to find a national issue, we're not."