Immigration splits 2008 White House hopefuls

WASHINGTON (AFP) — One of the trickiest tightropes being walked by the 2008 US presidential candidates, all of them descended from immigrants, is how to tackle illegal immigration as they bid for the White House.

Democrats are forced into a delicate dance around the thorny issue, scrambling to court the booming Hispanic-American population without irking party moderates, analysts said.

"Democrats are badly divided on the immigration issue. They want to appeal to Latinos (Hispanics seen as favorable to liberal US immigration policy) but don't want to alienate more moderate and conservative factions of the party," Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, told AFP.

Both leading Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have had some trouble clarifying their positions in the latest debates, just over a month before the first nominating contests in Iowa.

In last week's debate in Las Vegas, Clinton came out against the idea of giving state drivers' licenses, which are used as official identification, to illegal immigrants with a flat "no," after being slammed for waffling on the issue in an earlier debate in Philadelphia.

And although he knew the controversial issue would be back on the table, Obama was also sideswiped by the issue in Las Vegas. After skirting a direct answer, he finally told a CNN moderator he favored illegal immigrants having access to official drivers' licenses.

But on the Republican side, other than John McCain, who represents the Hispanic-heavy border state of Arizona, the candidates all argue for a hard line to be drawn at the US border.

Even words are political, with Democrats preferring the softer "undocumented workers" while Republicans use "illegal aliens" and have embraced the new edge to the issue carved by the September 11, 2001 attacks on US targets.

Tom Tancredo, a Republican hopeful, explicitly ties the two in ads highlighting the "20 million aliens who have come to take our jobs" and "Islamic terrorists [who] now freely roam US soil."

But by slamming illegals, Republicans risk losing support among immigrant-friendly Hispanic voters.

Immigration "is an issue that is a hot potato issue," said Peter Romero, a former top US diplomat for Latin America.

"The campaign at least so far, has evolved around 'run no risks, make no gaffes and make no mistakes'. Using the wrong word, using the wrong terms, can get you in lot of trouble," added Romero, noting that neither Democrats nor Republicans had been clear and forthcoming on the issue to date.

Democrats did well in 2006 legislative elections after Republicans focused, unsuccessfully, on fighting illegal immigrants.

But Democrats are still uncomfortable with the issue. They were unable to advance a comprehensive immigration reform agenda that would have given the 12 million illegals living in the United States a way to earn citizenship.

Now, lacking a big lead on the issue, the Democrats are simply battling to hold onto their support from Hispanics, said Lindsay Daniel of the National Council on La Raza, the country's biggest Hispanic organization.

US Hispanics, the United States' largest and fastest-growing minority with almost 45 million people, could play a critical role in deciding who moves into the White House.

Their votes could decide races in key swing states such as Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona, all of which Bush won in 2004 with support from more than 40 percent of Hispanics. But only 30 of them backed Republicans in 2006.

"The Republicans are losing one of the great swing votes in American politics," said Larry Sabato, political analyst at the University of Virginia.