California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman wasyesterday that she knowingly kept an undocumented worker as her housekeeper -- a damning allegation in a state that struggles with a nagging illegal immigration problem but also boasts an increasingly influential Latino electorate.
The story puts into focus the delicate line Republican candidates in California must walk, pledging to take a conservative approach to immigration without alienating California's Latinos. Whitman has taken a moderately conservative approach to the issue, and this latest revelation could make it more difficult for her to appeal to a voting bloc that traditionally favors Democrats anyway. Among voters overall, the revelations about Whitman's past could call into question her credibility on this issue, and perhaps her authenticity as a candidate. It remains to be seen, however, whether the allegations will truly hurt Whitman's campaign, especially in a year when the economy remains the foremost issue on voters minds.
One of the latest polls out of California, conducted for the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California, shows Whitman locked in a tight race with California's Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown, with Brown leading Whitman 49 percent to 44 percent among likely voters.
As many as 21 percent of California voters are Latino, according to the California Field Poll, and they make up 15 percent of this year's likely voters. The next debate between Brown and Whitman, which will be held at the California State University's Fresno campus, will be hosted by Univision and broadcast in Spanish.
Whitman can't afford to ignore that voting bloc, and has courted their support with a stream of Spanish-language television and radio ads and a campaign office in East L.A., according to the San Francisco Chronicle. She also erected Spanish-language billboards saying she opposes California's now-defunct Prop. 187, which denied social services to illegal immigrants, as well as Arizona's controversial new immigration law.
On the other hand, Whitman has said she will be "tough as nails" on the issue of illegal immigration, promised to crack down on "sanctuary cities," and opposes "amnesty." And in the same week that she has been accused of knowingly employing an illegal immigrant, Whitman promised to crack down on employers that hire undocumented workers.
It's unclear from recent polls how Latinos in California feel about Whitman. The L.A. Times poll/ USC poll showed that registered voters who identified as Latino backed Brown over Whitman by a 19-point margin. A poll released Wednesday night by the Public Policy Institute of California, however, shows Brown with just a 7-point lead among Latino voters. A Field poll released last week, meanwhile, shows Brown with just a 3-point lead among the group.
The director of the Field Poll explained to New America Media that both the Field Poll and the L.A. Times poll surveyed relatively small samples of Latino voters, which could account for the discrepancy in results. Additionally, New America Media, a collaboration of ethnic news outlets, points out that the term "Latino" encompasses a greatly diverse group, from first-generation immigrants to third-generation Californians.
While Latinos may be a diverse group, they typically vote Democratic in California, Fernando Guerra, political science professor at Loyola Marymount, told New America Media.
Susan Rasky, a political lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley made the same point to San Francisco station KGO-TV. She argued the allegations against Whitman therefore won't have much impact.
"If I had to bet today, I would say it doesn't hurt her as much as one might think it might, because the Latino voters in this state were probably going to be voting Democratic anyway," she said.
Meanwhile, the Public Policy Institute poll released yesterday showed that 62 percent of California voters list the economy as the most important issue facing people in the state. Only 5 percent said immigration was the most important issue facing people in California.
In the wake of yesterday'sin which Whitman's former housekeeper put forward her allegations, political commentators gave mixed judgments of the Republican candidate.
Paul Thornton wrote at the L.A. Times that Whitman should not be punished by voters for this incident.
"If Whitman's account is true -- and I'm inclined to believe her story, since it can be easily verified by examining tax records -- then she deserves to be let off the hook," he wrote. "Whitman may be inclined to embrace more extreme positions to restore any lost credibility among her conservative base. She ought to resist that temptation."
Steven T. Jones at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, meanwhile, argued that Whitman should be held accountable for her actions: "Maybe not to legal authorities, but certainly to voters who will now question her integrity and whether she has been hypocritically grandstanding on such a politically divisive issue," he wrote.
Jones added, "Whitman's excuse is that she didn't know her housekeeper was undocumented because she was provided false paperwork, an excuse that most California employers could also offer, showing just how ridiculous Whitman is for pretending that being 'tough' can solve this 'problem.'"
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.