Meg Whitman had just finished delivering her campaign stump speech for an audience in El Dorado Hills, Calif., several months ago when she asked for questions from the crowd.
Two words, phrased as a statement, were the first to pop from the audience of about 30 people: "Illegal aliens."
The Republican gubernatorial hopeful didn't miss a beat, promising to get tough on employers of such immigrants and otherwise stop the influx.
That scene has played out countless times on the campaign trail this year, where illegal immigration has remained a hot topic for many California Republicans, even as -- or perhaps because -- unemployment and other economic worries have grown.
Republican candidates have responded by staking out tough positions on the subject, and Whitman rival Steve Poizner, in particular, has built much of his campaign on pledging to cut state services for all illegal immigrants.
"My view is we should not have any magnets left," Poizner said last month at the state Republican convention. "We should turn off all incentives. We should end all taxpayer benefits for people here illegally."
That illegal immigration has stayed in the spotlight 16 years after state voters voted to do exactly what Poizner was suggesting wasn't a surprise for Jon Fleischman, vice chairman of the state GOP's southern branch and a popular blogger.
In the most recent nonpartisan Field Poll, 58 percent of registered state Republican voters called illegal immigration one of their most important issues, just below economic and state budget concerns. A larger percentage of voters identifying themselves as strong conservatives listed illegal immigration as a most important issue. By contrast, just 27 percent of Democrats and 7 percent of strong liberals cited the issue as one of their most important.
"It's an issue of principle for Republicans," Fleischman said. "No matter what discussion you have -- jail overcrowding, California prison costs, the schools -- it's in there."
Pinpointing the exact amount the state spends on illegal immigration, particularly for schools, is difficult. But the state Department of Finance estimates it will cost an estimated $970 million this fiscal year to incarcerate roughly 19,000 illegal immigrants, with the federal government reimbursing California for about 10 percent of that cost.
The state's Medi-Cal health system will spend an estimated $1.3 billion this fiscal year treating 823,000 illegal immigrants. The U.S. government provides 50 percent reimbursement for the bulk of that cost. Another $512 million will be spent on cash and food stamps for poor U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, officials estimate. Half of that cost is picked up by the U.S. government.
The cost of illegal immigrants also is offset to some degree, officials say, by the taxes and labor they provide.
One of the Legislature's strongest immigrant advocates, Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said GOP candidates playing the immigration card are hurting their chances in the general election. "We have to solve the problem of immigration and how it affects the economy and our national security," he said. "But that's not something you can do with a bumper sticker. It moves the Republican Party toward irrelevancy."
Tim Hodson, executive director of Sacramento State's Center for California Studies, said pushing the illegal immigration issue also could erase gains the Republican Party has made courting Latino voters since the mid-1990s, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson and other Republicans pushed Proposition 187, which proposed cutting state services for illegal immigrants.
Voters approved the initiative in 1994, but U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer struck down much of the law as unconstitutional a year later.
"It's undeniable that in the 1990s Republicans were perceived by a great many Latinos as well as Asian voters as being very hostile to immigrant groups, and that has cost the Republicans dearly and continuously," Hodson said. "To the sense they have gotten gains nationally, they could put it at risk now."
The gubernatorial campaigns and their supporters, however, said most Republicans and state voters are on their side on the issue.
"I think Latino voters, like all Californians, they care about good quality schools, they care about jobs," Poizner said. "They care just like everybody that we have to fix this broken economy."