GOP chief Martinez hits ’08 candidates’ anti-illegals rhetoric
The Republican Party’s national chairman scolded his party’s two top presidential candidates last week for their tough stance on illegal immigration, even as both men moved to try to one-up each other in calling for stricter enforcement.
Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, President Bush’s handpicked choice for party chairman, chided former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani for opposing and mischaracterizing the Senate immigration bill Mr. Martinez helped craft.
“It’s about leading on the tough issues,” Mr. Martinez told the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce in comments first reported in Aug. 15 editions of the St. Petersburg Times. “It was easy to say, ‘This wasn’t good enough, this isn’t right, I don’t agree with Martinez.’ [. . . ] But at the end of the day, what is your answer? How would you solve this?”
His criticism comes as illegal immigration has become for Republican candidates what the Iraq war is for Democrats: a chance to compete to take the hardest line. And just as with the Democrats on Iraq, the immigration debate includes veteran lawmakers, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose earlier positions are coming back to haunt him among the party’s base.
Mr. Giuliani was emphatic last week in declaring illegal immigration can be stopped, while Mr. Romney has made his opposition to amnesty front and center in his advertising campaign.
Two other potential Republican candidates, former Sen. Fred Thompson and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also have stepped up their emphasis on the issue. Mr. Thompson penned a Web column calling for stricter enforcement, and Mr. Gingrich tossed his prepared speech to the Iowa Republican straw poll over the Aug. 11-12 weekend to instead deliver remarks calling on the president to force through Congress a bill to end sanctuary cities that protect illegal aliens.
“That’s why I called for an emergency session of Congress — I wanted to jar the system into thinking differently,” Mr. Gingrich said. His remarks were tied to news that an illegal alien had been arrested in connection with the execution-style killings of three New Jersey students.
Mr. Gingrich said the outrage over the federal government’s failure to address that situation is tied to outrage over a broken government all around, and said voters “have a sense that their government at all levels is failing them so deeply that the most basic level of civilization is at risk, which is your physical safety.”
He said that’s driving the electorate, which is in turn driving the political debate.
Kris W. Kobach, chairman of Kansas’ Republican Party and a former congressional candidate, said immigration is the dominant domestic-policy issue.
“They are all competing to present a conservative demeanor on the issue, but I think they’re doing it for different reasons,” Mr. Kobach said. He said Mr. Giuliani is trying to “cover over his past record”, while Mr. Romney sees immigration voters as an attractive voting bloc. He said Mr. Thompson has the most to gain because of his “fundamentally conservative” immigration record.
Candidates heard about immigration at nearly every stop on the campaign trail in Iowa, and the questions showed an electorate familiar with and passionate about the issue. As a response, both Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani are running broadcast ads detailing their get-tough stances.
“You can’t have over 70 town halls in Iowa without talking about immigration, and the governor has made clear where he stands,” said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.
The Romney and Giuliani camps also have sparred over who has the worse record. Mr. Romney accused Mr. Giuliani of defending and promoting New York City’s sanctuary policy, while the former mayor said Massachusetts allowed several cities to act as sanctuaries for illegal aliens during Mr. Romney’s governorship.
Mr. Martinez’s criticism of the two men was a stinging shot from the head of their party.
But it came just two weeks after the Republican National Committee sided with those who want enforcement first, with the RNC passing a resolution calling on the government to use all means necessary to secure the border.
The St. Petersburg Times said Mr. Martinez told audience members at the chamber of commerce to try to pin the candidates down on their immigration stances when Republicans are in town for a debate on Nov. 28.
The Republican National Committee did not return a call for comment.
From left, Sen. Mel Martinez, national Republican Party chairman, criticized the party’s leading 2008 presidential candidates, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, for their positions on the campaigndominant issue of illegal immigration.