On radio shows and at business roundtables, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. labels Maryland a "sanctuary state," a jurisdiction that allegedly lax law enforcement and overgenerous legislators have made a magnet for illegal immigrants.
"It is a real problem in Maryland," the Republican former governor said recently while campaigning to win back his old job. "It is a serious problem."
Martin O'Malley is less likely to raise the issue of illegal immigration.
"I'm against it," the Democratic governor said last week. But he added that he is wary of those who assign blame for economic woes to the undocumented.
"New Americans didn't manipulate investment vehicles on Wall Street and wreck our economy and decimate our savings," he said. "New Americans didn't manipulate intelligence data about threats that didn't exist that caused us to expend all of that effort in Iraq."
Locked in a neck-and-neck contest, Ehrlich and O'Malley both have focused their campaigns on jobs. But the sour economy and the controversial Arizona immigration enforcement law have pushed what was once a federal issue into state politics.
Opponents of illegal immigration ask why state officials won't follow the example of the Arizona law, which would have required local law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of those they suspect of being in the country illegally. Latino voters, once divided over immigration enforcement, now appear to be uniting in opposition to what they see as rising rhetoric against not only undocumented immigrants, but all Hispanics.
Roberto Suro, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, called the shift in the focus of the immigration debate from the federal to state governments "a substantial dynamic" that has been building over the last half-dozen years.
"You've had people in favor of restriction frustrated at the federal level trying to do stuff on the local level," said Suro, formerly director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
All of the 46 state assemblies that met for regular sessions in the first half of this year considered regulations that would have restricted illegal immigrants in some way, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year more than 1,900 bills on the issue were introduced nationwide — a more than sixfold increase from the 300 introduced just five years ago.
In Maryland, where estimates of the undocumented population range as high as 250,000, groups on both sides of the debate are watching the gubernatorial race. Some immigrant advocates hope a second O'Malley administration would formally rebuke the Arizona approach, revive legislation to provide in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants and dampen local cooperation with federal immigration agents.
Kim Propeack, the political action director for Casa de Maryland, says the organization's newly formed political arm has identified 70,000 Latino voters in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, two areas in which O'Malley needs to do well if he is to win in November. Most of them, she said, see anti-immigration rhetoric as a personal affront.
"We live in a period with enormous attacks on Latino voters and residents," Propeack said. "It is very difficult to find a Latino from whom immigration is not their civil rights issue."
Republican members of the House of Delegates, meanwhile, plan to make a priority next year of pushing a new requirement that state contractors verify the immigration status of their workers. Del. Patrick McDonough and others also want to enact a measure similar to Arizona's law, and another that would allow citizens to sue lawmakers for not adequately enforcing federal immigration laws.
O'Malley and Ehrlich have sharp differences on illegal immigration. Ehrlich vetoed legislation to grant illegal immigrants in-state tuition; O'Malley says he'd sign that bill. Ehrlich wants county sheriffs to play a more active role identifying immigrants for deportation; O'Malley says local law enforcement should focus on local issues.
Neither supports enacting a Maryland version of the Arizona law, though Ehrlich has called the U.S. Justice Department's decision to sue Arizona "a shame."
Ehrlich, as a Republican who needs Democratic support in this blue state to win, wants to respond to the interests of his conservative base without angering moderates.
Advocacy groups are already preparing to remind Latino voters of his 2004 comments on a radio show that multiculturalism is "bunk" and "crap."
During the Republican primary, Ehrlich's rival Brian Murphy sought to highlight illegal immigration, barnstorming the state with Frederick County Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins, a favorite of Maryland conservatives for his close cooperation with federal immigration authorities. His is the only sheriff's department in the state to participate in a federal program that empowers some deputies to check immigration status of those who are arrested.
Jenkins stresses that the checks are run only on those already charged with a crime.
"I don't have an [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] unit that is going around the streets rounding people up," he said.
Ehrlich says he supports the program. He says he'd used the governor's mansion as a bully pulpit to encourage other counties to join.
O'Malley sees a problem with the approach.
"You run the real risk of undermining public safety if you try to turn your local police departments into border patrol or immigration police," he said. "People that are victims of crime maybe afraid to the police."
Another key difference between the candidates is on the thorny issue of in-state tuition at the state's universities. Casa de Maryland plans to push next year for illegal immigrants to be eligible for the reduced rate, arguing it's a natural extension of the federal mandate that states educate all children from kindergarten through high school.
"People shouldn't have the door slammed in their face after graduating from high schools," Propeack said.
O'Malley has pledged to sign the bill — provided the students are residents, have paid taxes and are in the process of securing citizenship. But in a recent interview he stressed that the General Assembly seems unlikely to pass such a measure.
"There is not the will to do that," he said. "There is not the money to do that."
Indeed, the last time the legislature passed such a bill was in 2003. Ehrlich vetoed the measure, saying at the time that it was "slowly chipping away at this central goal of citizenship." There was no attempt to override the veto.
His view there has also not changed. "It is insulting to residents of Maryland who send Maryland kids to Maryland institutions," he said. Already, he said, too many Maryland students are being turned away from Maryland schools.
Also emerging as a flashpoint this election year is Propeack's organization itself. The initial mission of Casa de Maryland — originally, Central American Solidarity and Assistance, an acronym that forms the Spanish word for "house" — included providing immigrants with vocational courses, training in English as a second language and job placement.
But the organization has drawn the kind of opposition here that the liberal social services and activist group ACORN stirred nationally — for actions such as producing a pamphlet advising undocumented immigrants of their rights when encountering law enforcement.
O'Malley and Ehrlich both have supported state funding for Casa, primarily for building construction. Ehrlich says that he would continue to support the organization if it returned to what he views as its core mission.
"If they wanted to engage in assimilation, and help transform them into Americans, good for them," he said. "They would have universal support."