Central Valley

Presidential candidates find common ground in valley

WASHINGTON -- The surviving presidential contenders from both parties are competing more furiously than ever, but beneath their surface discord some find similar views on issues important to the San Joaquin Valley.

Even as their three-way competition escalates, Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina agree the United States should formally recognize the Armenian genocide.

The Democrats uniformly back California's bid to impose stiffer greenhouse gas regulations. And, deploying similar language, they each support an agricultural guest-worker proposal called AgJOBS that could offer legal status to 1.5 million illegal immigrant farm workers.

Republican candidates clash more on selected Valley issues, mirroring in some ways their sharp policy divisions at the national level.

For candidates from both parties, the Valley can offer a treasure trove of primary voters on Feb. 5. The candidates are enticing those votes through a combination of policy positions and personal appeals -- six major candidates have visited Fresno and the southern San Joaquin Valley since last year "We'll be seeing more of them," predicted Mike Lynch, a Modesto-based Democratic political consultant. "They've got to come through here."

The Democrats favor the same phrases on some Valley issues, with Edwards and Clinton both saying an agricultural guest-worker program will let farm workers "come out of the shadows."

While legislatively dormant at present, the agricultural guest-worker proposal remains politically volatile. It's an issue that can tip voters one way or another in regions like the San Joaquin Valley, home to many illegal immigrants and the farmers who employ them.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who visited the Valley early last year, is the only Republican candidate to formally endorse the agricultural guest-worker program, although former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani sounds sympathetic. McCain's position draws fire from his fellow conservatives, who denounce it as amnesty.

"McCain championed a bill to let every illegal immigrant stay in America permanently," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney charged in a recently aired TV commercial in New Hampshire.

The word "amnesty" is politically toxic, and supporters of the comprehensive immigration and agricultural guest-worker proposals speak of "earned legalization," whereby illegal immigrants must pay fines and meet strict criteria.

Words likewise anchor the debate over an Armenian genocide resolution, which revolves around how to characterize the deaths of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923.

Armenian-Americans and many historians consider the widespread slaughter a genocide.

The issue is dear to the hearts of many Armenian-Americans, more than 50,000 of whom are estimated to live in the San Joaquin Valley.

Not infrequently, presidential candidates will posit one position that changes once the White House prize is attained. The first President Bush, for in stance, endorsed the Armenian genocide characterization while campaigning in 1988, but then dropped the term once in office.

But for now, at least, Clinton, Obama and Edwards all back an Armenian genocide resolution. Clinton and Obama are both co-sponsors of the current Senate effort.

"The United States must stand for telling the truth in all genocides," said Jenni Lee, Edwards' campaign spokesperson.

As Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee showed the equivocation that often shadows the issue. In 2001, he issued a proclamation declaring April 24 to be a "Day of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide." He also declared a subsequent "Day of Remembrance of the Turkish and Armenian Tragedy," whose softer phrasing angered politically active Armenian-Americans.

The only military veteran among major candidates, McCain flatly declared that a genocide resolution threatens U.S. national security; he warns it would "harm relations with the Turkish people while injecting the Congress into the sensitive role of historian."

California's bid to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, now the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the state, draws support from Democrats. While some Republicans including Romney argue that a consistent national emissions standard is best, Democrats are united behind California's efforts.

"The president should be working as a partner with states who want to lead on global warming," said Mo Elleithee, (cq) Clinton's spokesperson.

Some of the struggling candidates, like Republicans Giuliani or Fred Thompson, may not survive long enough to reach the San Joaquin Valley. Those that do will find their work cut out for them.

Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com.