Arizona’s new measure, which requires that the police check the documents of anyone they stop or detain whom they suspect of being in the country illegally, has forced politicians far and wide to take a stance. But unlike in Washington, where a consensus exists among establishment Republicans, the fault lines in the states — where the issue is even more visceral and immediate — are not predictable.
Conservative Republican governors like Jim Gibbons of Nevada, Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia and Rick Perry of Texas have criticized the Arizona law. But some more moderate Republicans, like Tom Campbell, who is running in the party’s Senate primary in California, have supported it.
The decision on whether to support or oppose the law can have almost immediate political consequences. The latest evidence may be Meg Whitman’s declining fortunes.
For months, Ms. Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, enjoyed a substantial lead over her principal rival for the Republican nomination for governor of California, Steve Poizner. But in recent weeks, she has seen her advantage slip significantly, in no small part because Mr. Poizner has hammered her on her opposition to the Arizona law.
Finding herself increasingly on the defensive on the issue, Ms. Whitman even proclaims in a new advertisement: “I’m 100 percent against amnesty for illegal immigrants. Period.”
Nonetheless, a poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California showed her advantage falling 23 percentage points since March, down to 38 percent versus 29 for Mr. Poizner.
In states with hotly contested elections, several Republican candidates are finding their positions mobile, reflecting the delicacy of the issue and a growing body of polls that suggest many voters support the Arizona law.
In Florida, for instance, Attorney General Bill McCollum, who is running for governor, now says he approves of the law, though he called it “far out” two weeks ago; Marco Rubio, the state’s Republican Senate nominee, has also shifted his stance.
State Republicans now find themselves in a balancing act, trying to seize a moment of Congressional stalemate to demonstrate leadership while not repelling voters on either side of the debate, a challenge that is particularly daunting for those in a primary fight.
“I think we need to be very careful about immigration,” said Karl Rove, the former adviser to President George W. Bush. “I applaud Arizona for taking action, but I think the rhetoric on all sides ought to be lowered.”
Mr. Rove and other strategists who worked for Mr. Bush were proponents of an immigration overhaul that included a path to legal status.
At the same time, state legislatures are racing to create their own laws, making it more likely than ever that the nation will end up with a patchwork of state legislation instead of a comprehensive national approach in the next year or two.
In the first three months of this year, legislators in 45 states introduced 1,180 bills and resolutions relating to immigration; 107 laws have passed, compared with 222 in all of 2009, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
“The kindling has been lit in the states,” said Matthew Dowd, a political consultant from Texas who was the chief strategist for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.
“With immigration, the choices you have to make are hard, and most people in Washington don’t really like to make hard choices,” he added. “Hard choices are much more often made in the states.”
Democrats have their own problems with the issue. Some more left-leaning factions prefer a path to legal status for illegal immigrants without the tough enforcement measures that Democrats in Congress have proposed.
But the divisions appear more acute among Republicans, some of whom fear that the party will become identified with punitive immigration laws at a time when Hispanics are a growing part of the electorate — particularly in emergent battleground states like Colorado and Nevada.
“I am a grandson of an Irish immigrant,” Mr. McDonnell of Virginia said in an e-mail message. “The Hispanic population in this country contributes to our culture, economic prosperity and quality of life.”
Republicans who are not facing primary challenges are far more likely to take a more moderate view of immigration, and many, particularly in border states, are aware that business groups that depend on illegal immigrants for labor support a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
“If I am running in a primary without opposition, I have the luxury of not having to worry about what I say on this issue,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politicsat the University of Southern California.
The dynamics of immigration politics vary vastly by state, even among those with heavy immigrant populations, and can reflect local concerns. In Texas, for instance, Latinos have a lot of political influence and have elected candidates for many years. The population there is often closely aligned with the political leadership of some cities and even with state government.
In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer, who faces a Republican primary challenge, was under extreme pressure from her own party for advocating a tax increase, something now seen as largely mitigated by her signing of the immigration bill.
But it is also true that a spate of new polls show support, although tempered, for the state’s tough new immigration law, which is clearly weighing on the minds of candidates.
In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 57 percent of the 1,079 adults queried said the federal government should determine the laws on illegal immigration, and 51 percent said the Arizona law was “about right” in its approach to the problem.
In a poll released by the Pew Research Center this month, 59 percent of 994 respondents said they approved of the Arizona law, while 32 percent disapproved. An Associated Press/Univision poll found that 42 percent of those asked favored the Arizona law and 24 percent opposed it.
“It is really how you ask the question,” said Sarah Taylor, who was Mr. Bush’s political affairs director. “And it is tied up in people’s feelings about their own family’s immigration experience, and then you have elements of race.”
While the federal government ponders, numerous states have already moved to emulate Arizona’s law, while others have moved forward with other measures, from laws that prohibit driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants to those that improve classes for immigrant children in public schools.
The issue is likely to be a problem for both parties throughout this election year.
“People like Perry and McDonnell and others realize this is a very divisive issue for our party,” said Linda Chavez, the Republican chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative research organization, referring to the governors of Texas and Virginia. “The fact is, you can’t secure the borders if you don’t fix immigration, because the two go hand in hand.”