Dole plays the race card

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Bob Dole resorted to an old formula yesterday in his last-ditch attempt to unseat President Bill Clinton in California. On a campaign swing he blamed illegal immigrants for swamping schools and jails at a cost of $3bn (pounds 2bn) to state taxpayers.

The Republican presidential candidate accused the administration of rushing through citizenship for immigrants, including some with criminal records, to swell Democratic rolls. Thousands of Californians, Mr Dole said, have been "victims of violent criminals who should have been stopped at the border before they ever set foot in America".

Two years ago immigration saved California's Republican Governor, Pete Wilson, who used the fear of an immigrant tide from Mexico to bring his re-election campaign back from the dead. In recent campaign appearances Mr Dole vowed to "secure the border", and denounced the cost of treating "illegal aliens" for Aids and drug addiction.

But even on this issue he struggled to make headway. With the Californian economy recovering, polls show less than 10 per cent of voters consider illegal immigration a priority. And Mr Clinton has been no slouch on securing the border: his Operation Gatekeeper doubled the number of agents patrolling the border and officials say it is harder than ever to cross to California. In a leak to the Los Angeles Times, the White House gave figures showing deportations of illegal immigrants had risen by one-third in the past year.

When Mr Dole appeared in San Jose before a gathering of Vietnamese Americans, he was at pains not to offend a community which has loyally voted Republican. Legal immigration, he said, "is a part of what America is all about"; illegal immigration "is a very different matter".

Mr Dole has been relentlessly optimistic about his chances in California since his campaign made the surprising decision to invest heavily there in the closing days of the campaign. "I'm willing to wait up all night on 5 November waiting for California to come in for Bob Dole and Jack Kemp," he said on Sunday. But polls do not back him up: he has consistently lagged behind Mr Clinton by 10-20 percentage points. In conservative Orange County, where Republicans must get a big majority to outweigh more liberal areas, the candidates are neck-and-neck.