The Los Angeles Times gives us the state of play: "More than any other question, Republican presidential candidates are asking voters to consider a single issue in the weeks before primary voting begins: Who detests illegal immigration the most?"

Matt Yglesias wonders why the Republicans would do such a thing, since, according to one recent national poll, only 10 percent of voters ranked immigration as a top-two issue. I thought Ryan Lizza explained the primary dynamics at work quite well in his recent New Yorker piece on the subject:

Anti-immigrant passion also owes much to the disproportionate influence of a few small states in the nominating process. National polls show that, as an issue, immigration is far behind the Iraq war, terrorism, the economy, and health care as a concern to most Americans; a recent Pew poll shows that, nationally, only six per cent of voters offer immigration as the most important issue facing the country. But in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the three most important early states, it is a top concern for the Republicans who are most likely to vote.

"It's the influx of illegals into places where they've never seen a Hispanic influence before," McCain told me. "You probably see more emotion in Iowa than you do in Arizona on this issue. I was in a town in Iowa, and twenty years ago there were no Hispanics in the town. Then a meatpacking facility was opened up. Now twenty per cent of their population is Hispanic. There were senior citizens there who were—'concerned' is not the word. They see this as an assault on their culture, what they view as an impact on what have been their traditions in Iowa, in the small towns in Iowa. So you get questions like 'Why do I have to punch 1 for English?' 'Why can't they speak English?' It's become larger than just the fact that we need to enforce our borders."

Ryan's whole piece is very much worth reading. Among other things, we learn that McCain knows perfectly well that his somewhat-softer-on-immigration stance is killing him in the primaries and still won't budge. ("He paused and shrugged. 'I don't want to be president that bad.'")

--Bradford Plumer