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Immigration hot topic at state Republican convention

DULUTH - Two prominent Republicans, one already in the presidential race and another mulling a run, blasted a new agreement on immigration reform Friday to a mostly sympathetic audience at the party's state convention.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is considered among the top tier of GOP hopefuls already seeking next year's presidential nomination, called the deal between President Bush and Senate leaders a form of amnesty for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country.

Under the deal, undocumented workers could obtain "Z visas" allowing them to live and work in the U.S., renewable every four years.

"There would be no end to a person being able to stay here," Romney told reporters Friday afternoon at the Gwinnett Center. "Amnesty has not worked in the past. It's not going to work in the future."

Later, before addressing the delegates as Friday's dinner speaker, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has yet to enter the presidential race, called the agreement a "giveaway" of American citizenship.

But Georgia's two Republican U.S. senators, both of whom helped craft the bipartisan agreement, said it represents an improvement over an immigration bill a Republican-controlled Senate passed last year, even though Congress now is in the hands of Democrats.

"We have a new group in charge in Washington," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who attended a reception at the convention for members of the state's congressional delegation.

"We can either sit on the sidelines ... or provide leadership to try to make what could be a bad bill better."

Sen. Johnny Isakson noted that the agreement includes the "triggers" he sponsored that would not allow any provisions governing legal residency and citizenship for illegals to take effect until America's borders are secured and a high-tech program is in place to screen out undocumented workers.

"This is everything last year's bill wasn't," he said.

But Gingrich said the federal government could never amass a bureaucracy capable of enforcing such a complicated measure.

"I don't see how they could possibly implement this bill," he said. "We'll have an industry producing false Z visas."

With no state offices up for grabs this year, presidential politics dominated the opening day of the two-day convention.

However, only Gingrich - who won't announce until September whether he will become a candidate - formally addressed the delegates.

Outgoing Republican Chairman Alec Poitevint decided not to allow presidential hopefuls to give speeches from the convention floor this year.

"We're focused on Georgia, adding to our majorities at the state level and in the congressional delegation," party spokesman Marty Klein said.

Relegated to a hallway off of the convention floor, Romney still drew an enthusiastic reception from supporters gathered behind a gaggle of reporters and TV cameras.

He dismissed the media pundits who say his Mormon religion will hurt him among conservative protestants in the South, citing his popularity with Catholic voters in Massachusetts.

"I'm not running for pastor in chief," he said. "The reason I'm in this race is to win a secular position. ... People don't pick political leaders based on where they go to church."

The convention opened with a hometown welcome from Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, who noted that Gwinnett County last hosted the state convention in 1993, when Bill Clinton was in his first year as president and his fellow Democrats controlled the governor's office and General Assembly.

"Our party was outnumbered at every level of government," Shafer said. "In the 14 years since we last convened in this room, we have transformed ourselves. We hold every important office."

But Republican dominance doesn't mean all has been smooth for the Georgia GOP.

The feud that erupted late in this year's legislative session between Gov. Sonny Perdue and House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, will be the backdrop of today's concluding session of the convention. Both will be among the scheduled speakers.

Otherwise, the convention will conduct little business.

The election of a new party chairman for the next two years promises to be a yawner. Only one candidate, longtime party activist Sue Everhart of Cobb County, entered the contest to succeed Poitevint.