WASHINGTON -- More significant than Hillary Clinton's supposed gaffe at the end of this week's Democratic presidential debate is the subject around which she tiptoed so delicately: Immigration is the issue Democrats fear because it could leave them with a set of no-win political choices.

Examined on its face, Clinton's statement on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to let illegal immigrants obtain driver's licenses was careful and reasonable.

While acknowledging that current law on immigration was inadequate, she defended Spitzer's idea by noting that if illegal immigrants are going to drive anyway, licensing them would protect all drivers.

Yet Clinton eventually cut into the debate to amend her statement: "I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done." Her opponents jumped all over her. John Edwards accused her of saying "two different things in the course of about two minutes."

In the short run, Clinton's exquisite calibration of her positions was the issue. But her debate jitters reflect a deeper worry among Democrats that Republicans are ready to use impatience with illegal immigration to win back voters dissatisfied with the status quo.

The issue is especially problematic because efforts to appease voters upset about immigration -- including a share of the African-American community -- threaten to undercut the Democrats' large and growing advantage among Latino voters. For Republicans, the issue is both a way of changing the political subject from Iraq, the economy and the failures of the Bush presidency, and a means for sowing discord in the Democratic coalition.

One poll finding this week that shook Democrats came in a survey conducted by Democracy Corps, a consortium organized by party consultants Stan Greenberg, Al Quinlan and James Carville. It asked voters to pick two from a list of seven problems that explained "why the country is going in the wrong direction."

The survey found that among independent voters, 40 percent -- by far the largest group -- picked this option: "Our borders have been left unprotected and illegal immigration is growing."

By contrast, a lack of action on health care was named by only 24 percent of independents as a core problem, and Iraq by 23 percent.

The Democracy Corps poll, along with a Pew Research Center survey released this week, found Democrats with substantial advantages over Republicans on a variety of measures. But many Democrats fear that the more trouble Republicans are in, the more they will be willing to use immigration to attempt a comeback.

This has created serious tensions among congressional Democrats. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the caucus chair, has risked the ire of Latino groups by warning that the party must deal with concerns about illegal immigration.

"The debate to date has been a debate about corporate interests, ag (agriculture), the tourist industry and advocates of immigrants," he said in a telephone interview on Thursday. "This is a debate in which the rest of America is left out.

"This is a values issue: How does a superpower not have control over its border? You have to enforce the rule of law as it relates to the border and you have to enforce the rule of law as it relates to benefits. Then the American people will be open to resolving the issue as it relates to what industry needs and what immigrant advocates need."

But Latino groups are alarmed that even benefits for legal immigrants are in jeopardy. For example, some immigrant children and pregnant women were excluded from help under the recently passed State Children's Health Insurance Program expansion that Bush vetoed.

And the carefully drawn Dream Act, which focused on legalizing the status of high school graduates who are under 30 and were brought into the country as children by their parents, failed to secure enough votes to pass the Senate. This angered Latino groups who saw no reason to deprive successful men and women, who are not responsible for their presence in the U.S., of legal status. Such young people, said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, should not be asked to "give up their hopes and dreams."

It's absurd that the Dream Act cannot pass, and foolish to shortchange legal immigrants on health care coverage. Yet at a moment when the electorate is very angry, it's not surprising that some voters are channeling their discontent through the immigration issue. It's happened before in our history.

Democrats have to manage their political problem on immigration to have a chance at solving the problem itself. Hillary Clinton is not alone in facing this dilemma.

E. J. DIONNE, JR. is a columnist for The Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.


By E.J. Dionne, Jr.