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Immigration issue could make or break presidential candidates

The touchy subject has become a political minefield for '08 contenders.

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America's rugged, porous southern border has come to symbolize a broken immigration system, spawning a political debate especially fraught with perils. Nowhere is that more evident than in the presidential primary races.

The highly charged immigration issues have tripped up veteran politicians such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who recently appeared to waffle on whether to grant noncitizens driver's licenses, and Sen. John McCain, who's backed away from a long legislative history advocating a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million to 15 million people who've slipped over the border or overstayed their visas.

Pundits dub the immigration issue "a minefield," "a new third rail," as well as a "megaissue" because of its complexity and the strong emotions it evokes. Even the language used – "undocumented worker" versus "illegal immigrant" – has become a potentially volatile touchstone.

While immigration still comes in behind the war in Iraq, the economy, and healthcare issues when voters are polled about their concerns, it now beats out terrorism.

"Even more important, it's high-intensity issue on both sides, and in this [primary race], high-intensity minorities are more important than majorities," says John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International, a polling firm. "It's also the ultimate wedge issue, because it's a zero-sum game."

In general, the Democrats support shoring up the border, having tougher enforcement in the workplace, and creating a way for "undocumented workers" to earn citizenship. Their mantra is "comprehensive reform." For Republicans, it's "tough enforcement": All support more border security and tough workplace enforcement, and most are adamantly opposed to creating any kind of "amnesty" for "illegal aliens." The exception is Senator McCain. While he has backed off stands openly advocating a path to citizenship, he still says it's important to "recognize the importance of assimilation of our immigrant population," according to his website.

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