WASHINGTON – From Vermont to California and a host of unlikely places in between, many Republicans say they are convinced that tough immigration positions are what voters want to hear ahead of the November election, and, in fact, immigration could be the biggest issue of the year.
"I honestly don't know a district where this is not an important issue, maybe the top issue or at least in the top three," said Richard Engle, spokesman for the National Federation of Republican Assemblies. "I happen to live in a nearby (congressional) district where there is an open seat, and every candidate is jumping over themselves to get in on this issue."
Senate Republicans are split over an immigration reform bill that includes a guest worker program sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and backed by President Bush. But most House Republicans support a law enforcement-centered bill, and many say their approach resonates with voters and will be a winner on the campaign trail.
"It's the hottest issue out there," Rep. Thomas M. Davis, R-Va., former chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee, told reporters in Washington, D.C., in May. He said his constituents "have taken a look at this thing and are very, very tough on immigration right now. They want a tough bill."
Randy Graf, a GOP primary candidate seeking the seat being vacated by Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., said he's been advocating the hard line against illegal immigration for years as a state legislator. Now, it seems the issue has finally caught fire.
"The federal government has failed for most of 40 years on this issue and it's time. The public is standing up and saying enough is enough," he said.
Meanwhile, Republican incumbents in competitive districts, even those far from America's borders, are talking tough. Rep. Don Sherwood, R-Pa., recently traveled to the U.S. Southwest to see for himself the problems with illegal immigration. Moderate Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who says he's been fielding more constituent questions about border security than ever, has advocated denying automatic citizenship to children born in the country to illegal immigrants.
And, in a move that some say is meant to stall any compromise with the Senate, House Republican leaders have scheduled no fewer than five hearings on the issue, including "field" hearings in places like Arizona, California and Texas where emotions are high over illegal border crossings.
The first such hearing, convened by the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation, took place Wednesday in San Diego. In an effort to counter the effect, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter held an opposing hearing in Philadelphia on the same day.
"We'll take the hearings to the places where we can get the best input," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said before the hearing. King added that several of the hearings will occur throughout the August congressional recess.
Democrats have decried the GOP strategy of holding immigration reform captive to field hearings, and on Wednesday criticized Republicans for demagoguing the issue.
"Rather than addressing the president and their party's failure on border security and immigration, House Republicans today are holding the first of several field hearings on an issue on which they do not have a single accomplishment," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement.
"Democrats propose a new direction on immigration. We believe it is long past time to focus on tough laws, actually implement them, hold the administration accountable for enforcing them, and pass comprehensive immigration reform," she said.
Red Meat for the Conservative Base
Though the National Republican Congressional Committee insists the midterm election focuses on local issues, Republican incumbents were sent to their home districts over the July Fourth holiday with talking points out of House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce's office. Those talking points highlight tough federal border security.
"This is not a time for half-measures or stopgap legislation," Pryce said in the document. "Lax border security and immigration enforcement represent a clear and present danger to our national security, and we must and will take the time to do this right."
Eliot Peace, Republican strategist for Starboard Communications in South Carolina, said the issue is less political and more a genuine concern among voters, even in districts not typically associated with border problems. In the Southeast and Midwest, for instance, many migrant workers are employed on farms and by construction companies. Those communities are urging officials to address problems stemming from illegal immigration, he said.
"I would say that actually, the immigration issue is one of the most important issues facing the country … for many reasons," Peace said.
"In a lot of districts and states, it's a good strategy," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "I think it's an issue that is becoming a base stirrer -- that is, it stirs the base and that's one of the questions the Republicans had: Will the base turn out in November?"
Critics say national Republicans are using the issue as a political tool to motivate and unify conservatives who are adamant that any so-called "amnesty" for illegal immigrants won't do.
"They are using it as a wedge issue -- like gay marriage," said Celinda Lake, Democratic pollster and co-creator of the George Washington University Battleground Poll.
Lake said Republicans are using immigration to distract voters from other worries leading up to the election. "It's an attempt to deflect people, to stop them from thinking about bigger issues, like Iraq and gasoline prices," Lake said.
"Immigration is a very emotional issue," added Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., who voted for the House bill but says he would like to see a more "comprehensive bill" with some sort of mechanism for bringing in workers legally to fill employment gaps at ranches and farms, including those in his rural district.
"I think more people are concerned about what direction we need to take towards finishing our mission in Iraq and being able to address issues affecting mainstream America, like sustainable energy and pocketbook issues," he said.
A recent FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that Iraq and the economy are at the top of voters' concerns lately. The survey, taken on June 27-28, found that 19 percent of 900 registered voters think the economy is the most important topic impacting their vote, compared to Iraq with 16 percent, terrorism with 12 percent and immigration with 11 percent.
Meanwhile, political analysts point out that the Republican Party, in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country, is divided over they best approach toward the illegal immigration issue.
"It can go either way," Sabato said, pointing to the recent victory by Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who supports the Senate bill, over a tough primary challenger, John Jacob, who campaigned hard on the anti-amnesty approach. In that race, both President Bush and first lady Laura Bush weighed in to help the incumbent while Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus chairman Rep. Tom Tancredo, from neighboring Colorado, supported Jacob.
Fred Barnes, editor of The Weekly Standard and a FOX News contributor, said this may indicate that House Republicans opposing the Senate's and president's approach may be counting on the wrong strategy.
"If an anti-immigration candidate can't win [in Utah], I don't know where they are going to win," he said.
The White House responded to Cannon's win as a victory for the president's comprehensive reform approach. But Peace argued that not only do many Americans think of national security and border patrol as one issue, they don't like the idea of offering a path to citizenship to illegal aliens.
"I would say that voters have a sense of what is fair and they don't think it's fair," he said.
As for what this issue does or doesn’t do for Democrats, Peace pointed out that Democrats in competitive districts in the Southeast are typically on the side of tough law enforcement. He said Georgia Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall and John Barrow are both in tight races with conservative Republicans who happen to be former members of Congress. All four have embraced the House bill.
"At least in this part of the country, I don't think a whole lot of Democrats who have competitive races fall on the wrong side of this issue," said Peace.
Graf, on the other hand, said he never thought of immigration as a partisan issue.
"This is well-past political -- this is not an issue of left or right, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, old or young. It crosses demographics." Illegal immigration and its impact on communities "is something you shouldn't have to deal with," he said.
Fox News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.