California Poll Focuses on Immigration

LOS ANGELES -- An angry dispute over illegal immigration is dominating the final days of California's Senate and gubernatorial races and dividing the electorate of the nation's most populous state along racial and ethnic lines.

From church pulpits to radio talk shows, Californians are engaged in a furious debate over how the character of their state would be affected by passage of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that, if approved, would punish illegal immigrants by denying them public services, including public education and immunization against contagious diseases.

The proposition was favored by a 2-to-1 ratio in public-opinion polls a month ago but appears to have rapidly lost ground and holds only a narrow lead in recent surveys. But, with polls showing single-digit margins in both the Senate and gubernatorial races, the proposition has become an intensely partisan issue that has defined the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

Candidates are filling the air waves with claims and counterclaims about their commitment to combat illegal immigration and their strategy plans.

"In a year in which candidates haven't captured people's attention, Prop. 187 has," said Bill Press, chairman of the California Democratic Party.

Proponents, who have dubbed the proposition the "Save Our State" initiative, argue that the measure would force the federal government into action, save the state billions of dollars and oblige many of the nearly 1.5 million illegal immigrants to leave.

Opponents insist that by putting some 300,000 illegal immigrant children out of school and into the streets and by denying them health care, Prop. 187 would eventually increase costs to the state while failing to stem the flow of people who come primarily to find work.

Gov. Pete Wilson, R, who has pushed the debate over illegal immigration to the forefront nationally over the past two years, has tied his campaign directly to the fate of Prop. 187.

Hammering the issue, a Wilson television ad contrasts pictures of immigrants taking the citizenship oath with dark shots of crowds swarming over the border fence as an announcer intones: "There is a right way and a wrong way" to enter the country.

Wilson's argument that illegal immigration represents a threat to both the social fabric and the economy of this hard-hit state has fueled his comeback from a 20-point deficit in the polls at the beginning of this summer.

Once a seemingly doomed incumbent who raised taxes in the midst of a recession, Wilson held a nine-point lead over his Democratic challenger, State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, in a survey released Tuesday by the independent Field Poll.

Having repeatedly changed the focus of her campaign, Brown now seems energized by the immigration debate and is making her opposition to Prop. 187 the theme of her campaign.

"It is more government," she said in a television appearance Tuesday. "It is big brother. We need less government."

Meanwhile, in the state's Senate race, Rep. Michael Huffington, R, has been badly damaged in his effort to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D, by the revelation last week that he and his wife had hired an illegal immigrant to care for their children. That came barely a week after he had endorsed Prop. 187 and attacked politicians for failing to take a strong stand in enforcing existing laws.

Feinstein immediately put a commercial on the air attacking Huffington for hypocrisy.