MIAMI — As Senator Clinton prepares to face off with many of her Democratic rivals today, she aligned herself directly with President Bush on the issue of immigration, using a campaign stop in South Florida to highlight a rare point of agreement with an administration that she criticizes at every turn.
Speaking to about 300 community leaders in an area with a large immigrant population, Mrs. Clinton staked out a centrist position on the hot-button topic, saying she supported a "pathway to legalization" for the nation's 11 million to 12 million estimated undocumented immigrants, but only if they waited in line and paid fines. She described her stance as "basically" what the president has proposed.
"I think, on this issue, the president is right," Mrs. Clinton said.
Immigration is one of few areas where Mr. Bush may find common ground with the Democratic Congress, but Mrs. Clinton's frank characterization was unusual in a presidential campaign in which even Republican contenders are distancing themselves from the White House on some issues.
It comes a day before the Democrats gather in Carson City, Nev., for the first candidate forum of the 2008 race. The event could yield the sharpest distinctions yet among a crowded field of hopefuls, but the candidates are not expected to meet face to face. Instead, they will take questions individually from ABC News's George Stephanopoulos, who rose to prominence as a top adviser to President Clinton when he ran for the White House in 1992. The forum will also be missing one of the early front-runners for the nomination, Senator Obama, who will be campaigning in Iowa instead.
Iraq and health care have dominated the early Democratic race, but immigration could loom large when it comes up for debate in Congress, where five of the party's White House contenders may have to cast votes. Another candidate, Governor Richardson of New Mexico — a border state — supports a guest-worker program but staunchly opposes the construction of a physical fence.
Mrs. Clinton did not mention the fence issue yesterday. She has said she supports a wall "in certain areas," but she made clear that tougher enforcement of current immigration laws was a top priority. While she scoffed at the suggestion of deporting all illegal immigrants, she had strong words for those who break the law. "The ones who are criminals, let's deport them. If they're criminals, let's move them back to where they came from," Mrs. Clinton said, drawing applause from the crowd.
She called for stricter sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and she echoed Mr. Bush in saying undocumented immigrants should have to pay fines and should have a lower priority than legal residents in applying for citizenship, even if it takes "10 to 15 years." Mr. Obama has also stood with the president on immigration, championing legislation that passed the Senate with Mr. Bush's support but that stalled in the House.
While she spoke extensively about immigration yesterday, Mrs. Clinton did not address one of Miami's most politically sensitive issues: American-Cuban relations. The next president is likely to be the first since Dwight Eisenhower to take office without Fidel Castro in power. The Cuban leader is seriously ill, and American officials have said he could die within months, although the Cuban government has disputed that assessment. Mrs. Clinton's husband drew heated criticism for his handling of the case of Elian Gonzalez, a young boy who reached America after his mother and 10 others died trying to flea Cuba on a small boat in 1999. After a highly publicized dispute, federal immigration officials seized Elian from his relatives at gunpoint in Miami and ordered him returned to his father in Cuba.
In her first campaign trip to Florida, the former first lady instead focused on courting black voters, as she did in a swing through South Carolina on Monday. After holding a fund-raiser in Tampa, she flew to Miami, where she appeared at a community center in Liberty City, a predominantly black neighborhood. She was introduced by Rep. Kendrick Meek and his mother, Carrie Meek, whom he replaced in Congress.
After hearing Mrs. Clinton speak on a range of issues in addition to immigration, several audience members said they came away impressed.
"She knows how to work a room," the executive director of the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board, Larry Capp, said. Then he added, referring to President Clinton: "I guess she learns from the best."
The praise was not universal, however. A board member of a local Jewish organization, Tobi Ash, said that while Mrs. Clinton appeared "practiced and studied," she gave "a lot of pat answers to a lot of difficult questions."