KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- Thomas Trautman is just a few doors down from the Mexican ice cream shop on State Street, within view of the sign in Spanish advertising lawyers for hire, when he begins to vent his frustration about illegal immigration.
"You can't make laws for only some people to obey, and right now, we've got people right here in this town that can not only break the law, but then they can collect benefits and get special privileges," says Trautman, 64, gesturing sullenly at the cozy main drag, less than a mile from the mushroom farms that have drawn thousands of Mexican immigrants to this corner of southeastern Pennsylvania for work.
His anger about undocumented immigrants is one reason that Trautman, a Republican and retired trucker who says he's fed up with both parties, is pretty sure he'll vote for Sen. Rick Santorum in one of this year's most closely watched Senate contests.
Santorum, a conservative two-term Republican who is considered among his party's most vulnerable incumbents this year, is counting on such voters to give his campaign a much-needed jolt in the dwindling days before the midterm balloting. Lagging behind his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey Jr., the state treasurer and son of Pennsylvania's popular former governor, Santorum has seized on illegal immigration as a key issue in his fight for survival, pushing his hard-line stance as a top reason he deserves re-election.
In states and towns like this one far from the nation's borders, Republicans are flogging the hot-button issue of immigration as they troll for votes, stirring a potent election-year stew of fears about security and anxiety about jobs and the economy.
Republican strategists say a tough immigration stance appeals to their base and might have the potential to attract crossover voters, particularly middle-class white conservatives who are upset at the notion that illegal immigrants might enjoy taxpayer-funded government benefits.
But there's little sign that most voters are listening. People are torn on the complicated issue, and many say it's low on their list of concerns this election year, behind the war and economic worries. Public polls show no more than about one-fifth of voters name it among their top concerns.
G. Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania political scientist and pollster, said immigration falls near the bottom of voters' priority lists here - less than 10 percent consider it a top issue - but "more Pennsylvanians are on Santorum's side on this than they are on [his] other positions, so if he can make it more important, he may benefit from it."
Other Republicans are trying a similar strategy.
In Minnesota, Senate candidate Mark Kennedy has run TV and radio ads that claim his opponent Amy Klobuchar supports giving Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants. Reps. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania and Chris Chocola of Indiana have promoted their opposition to President Bush's plan to give some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and have called their campaign rivals backers of "amnesty." In Tennessee, Bob Corker accuses his Senate campaign opponent, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., of opposing border security measures.
Republican strategists say the argument allows candidates to do two important things: appeal to demoralized conservatives in both parties who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration and show independence from Bush, whose popularity is sagging. In Santorum's case, the immigration issue has an added benefit: the potential to be a wedge issue among social conservatives who might otherwise consider supporting Casey because he shares the senator's anti-abortion rights position.
Santorum has spent millions airing a TV ad that bashes Casey for supporting a Senate-passed measure that followed Bush's approach, calling his position "an insult to every law-abiding, tax-paying American." He created a Web site called CaseyforAmnesty.com, where visitors can buy bumper stickers and lawn signs bearing the site's name; a dozen of them dotted a highway exit ramp last weekend in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Santorum had Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, who drew national headlines for enacting an anti-illegal immigrant ordinance in his northeastern Pennsylvania town, record a phone message to voters promoting Santorum's immigration stance.
Casey denies that he favors amnesty, which typically refers to allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal permanent residency.
The Democrat said "it's a big lie" that Santorum tells to obscure the Republican Party's inaction on border security and failures on other important issues such as upward spiraling health care costs and the war in Iraq.
But Casey was concerned enough about the charge to cut his own TV spot, which began airing this month, faulting Santorum for voting against measures to secure the border and punish employers who hire illegal workers. "Bob Casey opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants," the announcer says.
Casey's response reflects the counsel that Democratic strategists have been giving candidates across the country: to hit back by reminding voters that the explosion in illegal immigration happened on the Republicans' watch.
"Democrats have to be forceful in saying, 'Hey, you guys are responsible for this problem, and you've done nothing to resolve it,'" pollster Anna Greenberg said.
Greenberg's research shows that while "immigration voters" - those who consider it a top concern - overwhelmingly favor Republicans, voters across the board give Democrats an advantage on it.
"I'm not convinced from the data that I've seen that it's getting the traction with swing voters that [Republicans] would like it to have," she said.
For voters in Kennett Square-the self-proclaimed mushroom capital of the world, where Mexican enclaves dot a conservative white stronghold - the debate over illegal immigration is not some abstract argument over problems better known to folks in Arizona or California. It's as familiar as the popular taqueria in the New Garden Shopping Center or the bilingual letters their children bring home from school (English on one side; Spanish on the other).
Researchers estimate that the majority of mushroom pickers are undocumented; some say as many as 70 percent.
"It is an issue that has to be addressed. They're coming now in such numbers, and they're not learning the language. There just has to be some limitation," said Kate Eik, 73.
But it's also a topic as complicated as it is emotional and one that doesn't necessarily translate into an easy voting decision.
"Some of my neighbors I know are not here legally. They're lovely people. Where do you draw the line? I don't know, and I don't think any of [the candidates] know," said Eik, a Democrat who has supported Santorum in the past but has not decided how she will vote this year.
Santorum says the issue resonates deeply with voters, touching on their economic concerns and their security worries - but mostly on their basic sense of justice.
"The thing I hear about is: it's just not fair," Santorum said recently between campaign stops in Upper Darby. Voters "just don't think it's fair" for immigrants to "jump ahead of the line, get the benefits of living in America, and do it against the law."
Plymouth Meeting resident Brad Krenicky, a Democrat who says he identifies with the party's "workingman's values," may be the kind of voter Santorum has in mind.
"I would like to see a crackdown on illegals," said Krenicky, 34, who hasn't supported Santorum in the past but is considering doing so this year. "I have no problem with someone coming to this country and becoming a citizen by the proper channels, but breaking the law and then living off of our tax money, living off of our government support, that's not painting a very bright future for my two boys."
Casey rarely raises the immigration issue himself; he omitted mention of it altogether at a recent appearance in a Philadelphia union hall, where his criticisms of Santorum brought a cheering crowd of steelworkers and service employees to their feet.
"It's not immigration that's the issue, it's raising the minimum wage, it's affordable health care, it's Social Security, it's the presence of American jobs," said Paul Hughes, 36, who clapped and nodded his head during Casey's remarks.
Santorum is "trying to create an atmosphere of fear to split the work force," said Bill George, the director of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.
For Santorum, "this is now about doing two things: defining the difference between him and Casey, and energizing the base," said Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall College political scientist.
But the strategy carries risks. Some voters who consider themselves Republicans say they are turned off by the tone of the immigration debate, which they say has the stench of xenophobia.
Downingtown resident Bob Longley, 49, who twice voted for Bush but has turned against Republicans this year over the war, says the party's immigration message has only added to his alienation.
"This country has never closed its doors, and I think that's what makes America great - that we're a melting pot," he said.
IMMIGRATION AND CONGRESS
President Bush called on Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform plan, but election-year politics and intraparty divisions on the issue thwarted agreement on such a broad measure. Heres what Congress did and did not do:
Guest worker program: NO ACTION. Congress did not enact Bushs proposal to issue temporary work permits to foreigners coming in to take jobs that U.S. employers had certified could not be filled by Americans.
Path to legalization: NO ACTION. Congress did not enact Bushs plan to allow illegal immigrants who had been in the United States for a long period of time to earn citizenship after paying back taxes and penalties.
Border security: ACTION. Congress authorized the building of a 700-mile fence along the southwestern border with Mexico, and appropriated $1.2 billion in emergency funds for fencing. Lawmakers also approved $2.3 billion for staffing border patrols, including money for hiring 1,500 additional agents. They spent 13 percent more than Bush requested for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Penalties: ACTION. Congress enacted new criminal penalties for tunneling under the U.S. border, and doubled penalties for smuggling people across.
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS