Utah primary an immigration test case
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PROVO, Utah (CNN) -- Republican voters in Utah's 3rd Congressional District will go to the polls Tuesday for a primary vote that could signal how immigration will influence this year's congressional elections.
Five-term incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon, a conservative Mormon from outside Provo, is facing a stiff challenge from businessman John Jacob, also a Mormon and a conservative. The race is dominated by the debate over how to handle the millions of illegal immigrants living and working in the United States.
"I could lose," Cannon told CNN. "If there are a bunch of people who are really afraid and they are going to vote and vote against me."
The winner will go on to face Democrat Christian Burridge, an attorney, in November in the solidly Republican district. In 2004, Cannon won 63 percent of the vote, and Democratic challenger Beau Babka took 33 percent.
Republican politicos across the country are looking at the primary as a test case to see whether the emotional and divisive issue can turn an election.
Tad Walch, a reporter with the Deseret Morning News in Provo, said the race has generated "a lot of interest nationally."
"People do see this as a situation where if Cannon were to lose, it would be the final nail in the coffin -- the death knell, if you would, of guest worker programs," Walch said
President Bush and first lady Laura Bush recorded automated phone calls sent to voters across the district to try and drum up support for Cannon in what is expected to be a low-turnout contest.
On the other side, the Team America Political Action Committee dropped $50,000 into an ad played widely on talk radio blasting Cannon's immigration record: "A vote for John Jacob is a vote for cleaning up the immigration mess Chris Cannon helped make."
The committee was founded by Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and a leading advocate of cracking down on illegal immigration.
The primary parallels a split over immigration in the Republican Party on a national level that could help boost turnout in the midterm elections.
Republican leaders said last week that the House will begin a fresh series of immigration hearings in July. The move could prevent immigration legislation from passing Congress this year.
In May, the Senate passed immigration legislation that, along with strengthening border security, would create a program permitting illegal immigrants who had resided in the United States for five years or more to "earn" their citizenship after paying a fine and back taxes, learning English and holding a job for six years.
The Senate bill also would allow illegal immigrants who have resided in the United States from two to five years to apply for a guest-worker program.
Bush supports the Senate's "comprehensive" approach to immigration.
But many conservative Republicans, including those in the House, said the Senate's approach amounted to "amnesty" and vociferously oppose any legalization program before border security has been strengthened.
Immigration is the key issue for the Republican rank-and-file, a House Republican aide told CNN last week, and will drive conservatives to the polls.
As evidence, House Republicans point to the victory by Rep. Brian Bilbray in a special election in California earlier this month. Bilbray, who won the House seat vacated by convicted former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, said opposing Bush on immigration turned his campaign around.
Both Cannon and Jacob want better border security, but they differ on what to do with undocumented workers already in the United States.
Jacob said Cannon's support for letting illegal immigrants pay a fine and legally exit and re-enter the country amounts to a nod for amnesty. Cannon vehemently denies the accusation and argues Jacob's desire to deport all illegal immigrants is impractical and would undermine the economy.
"That disagreement is whether the Republican Party is going to be some kind of new xenophobic, anti-foreigner party or whether we're going be the party of a country that we're thrilled has grown," Cannon said in a debate earlier this month.
Jacob dismissed the idea that his view and that of his supporters is xenophobic.
"It's not anti-foreigners; we love legal immigrants," Jacob said. "It's strictly the word 'illegal' that we don't like."
"We need to follow the rule of law. That's what we're here for," he said.
Although he's faced primary opposition over this issue before, Cannon said he believes his tough political position now can be attributed to external forces -- the heat of the national immigration debate and its endless discussion on talk radio and cable television.
"It is an issue where talk show hosts have gotten people worried, have gotten people really concerned. I think there is in some areas a bit of racism involved and fear about the future," he said.
Two polls conducted last week showed Cannon leading by widely different margins.
A Salt Lake Tribune survey of 400 likely voters found 44 percent favoring Cannon and 41 percent for Jacob -- a result that was within the margin of error.
A Deseret Morning News poll showed Cannon ahead of Jacob 46 percent to 33 percent among all voters, but by 60 percent to 35 percent among just Republicans.
CNN's Sasha Johnson contributed to this report.
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