Immigration Reform Revisited

For weeks, Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida has blitzed Spanish-language media with one message: The GOP is committed to passing comprehensive immigration reform. But Martinez's words seem foreign in the party he chairs, and not just when he's speaking Spanish.

While strongly backed by President Bush, the Senate immigration bill faltered in June owing to a lack of Republican votes. The White House isn't giving up, starting each morning last week at 7 with war-room-style conference calls led by Bush's legislative aide Candida Wolff to review developments and set daily strategy.

Shifting alliegance. Even if Bush is successfully corralling GOP senators, experts say the debate is alienating Hispanic voters. Bush won an estimated 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, the most ever for a Republican.

By 2006, after an acrimonious immigration debate, nearly 70 percent of Hispanic votes went to Democrats. A June poll found that twice as many Hispanics now identify as Democrats as they do Republicans.

The GOP could pay dearly if it cannot stop bleeding Latino voters. The Hispanic population grew by more than 20 percent between 2000 and 2005 and-despite the large number whose age or immigration status makes them ineligible to vote-already represents a large slice of voters in the coveted southwestern states.

Their emerging clout will only be accelerated in 2008. In part to have the eventual nominee better represent Latino voters, the Democrats moved up their Nevada caucus to January 19, between the more monochromatic events in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nevada Republicans followed suit.

A number of states with large Hispanic populations, including Florida, California, and New Jersey, have also moved up their own primaries. "What [the GOP is] fighting is demographics," says Joe Garcia, director of the Hispanic Strategy Center at the New Democratic Network. "And that's something smart people don't fight with."