For GOP, payback will be a bitch

Long after President George W. Bush has retired to his Texas ranch, his fellow Republicans may have to deal with Hispanic voter backlash over his failed immigration reform.

In 2008, in presidential and congressional elections, Latino voters, an increasingly important demographic in US politics, will get their first chance to hand out blame for the collapse of the sweeping immigration bill last week.

Conservative Republicans in Congress, who deserted a president from their own party, and squashed the bid to grant a path to citizenship to at least 12 million illegal immigrants, may be caught in the crossfire, analysts said.

“The unified message of the Democratic leadership is that the Republicans blocked the bill — that’s likely to be the way that Hispanic voters remember this,” said Adam Segal director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.

According to a recent poll in the USA Today newspaper, only 11 percent of Hispanic voters now identify themselves as Republicans — down from 19 percent in 2005.

That figure is especially dismaying for the party, as a record 40 percent of Hispanic voters chose Bush in the 2004 election, and the president’s political skills had seemed to have found a new seam of Republican support.

The ire of Hispanic voters may be especially pronounced and decisive in 2008 in a clutch of five southern and western states — Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.

Florida has played a central role in the last two US presidential elections, narrowly going Republican in 2000 and 2004, and on the evolving US political map, New Mexico and Nevada are increasingly significant.

“This immigration issue and other things might give Democrats the best chance that they have had in the last decade to win Florida,” Segal said.

Angry by the failure of a previous attempt to tackle immigration reform last year, and dismayed by the war in Iraq, 70 percent of Hispanic voters plumped for the Democrats in 2006 elections, as the party grabbed control of Congress.

“The breach was opened in 2006, it exists, and it is not a myth,” said Robert de Posada, president of the Latino Coalition, a policy advocacy group, at a forum last weekend of presidential candidates in Florida.

In one anecdotal sign of the potential of the issue to haunt Republicans, many of whom slammed the bill as an “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, all eight Democratic candidates showed up at the forum.

But only one Republican White House hopeful, long-shot conservative candidate and congressman Duncan Hunter, took the time to attend.

Republicans also lag behind the Democrats in efforts to woo Hispanic voters in their own language on the internet.

Most Democratic hopefuls have posted messages in Spanish on their campaign websites and some, like Senator Hillary Clinton, have started setting up a separate Spanish-language website targeting the Hispanic community.

On the Republican side, only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney appears to offer Spanish links on his website, including a video on the candidate narrated by his son Craig, in fluent Spanish.

Several Republican presidential candidates, including former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Romney, fiercely condemned the immigration reform bill.

Their rival John McCain was a strong advocate — but his campaign on Monday partly blamed that stance for a disastrous 2007 second quarter fundraising by the Arizona senator, which has left his campaign hanging by a thread.

Hispanic voters are likely to view the Republicans with even more skeptisism in 2008, if the candidate who emerges from the blizzard of nominating contests, is a hawk on immigration, experts said.

“If that happens, no matter who the Democratic nominee is, the Democrats are going to have a significant advantage,” said Segal.

De Posada said simply that candidates who were smart enough to work with the Hispanic community could make the difference in 2008.

Had the immigration bill passed Congress, it would have granted an eventual path to legal status to some 12 million illegal and undocumented immigrants.

It would have replaced the current family-dominated immigration system with a merit-based points formula, and attempted to cut a huge backlog for permanent resident “green card” applicants.

It would also have triggered a four billion dollar drive to strengthen US border defenses.