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Amid immigration rhetoric, Dodd strives for nuance

Chris Dodd helped set off the biggest dust-up of this week's Democratic presidential debate by disagreeing with Hillary Clinton on whether New York state should issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

But, as the Connecticut senator explained to Globe editors yesterday, his position on immigration is far more nuanced than his 30-second answer in the debate might have suggested.

He said that while he opposes giving driver's licenses because they are a privilege, he has no problem providing healthcare and education to illegal immigrants, because they are more of a right.

Dodd also said Democrats have to be reasonable and put limits on the services they offer illegal immigrants because otherwise Republicans will use immigration as a wedge issue.

"It is an explosive issue," he said. "It's getting ugly."

He said he is hearing resentment over illegal immigrants - caused, he said, by economic insecurity - during house parties in Iowa and New Hampshire. And if that anger builds, it will stall the comprehensive change he believes the country needs, Dodd said.

He favored the overhaul, which failed in Congress earlier this year, that would have offered a path to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country if they paid fines and back taxes and met other requirements. Critics called that amnesty, and helped kill the bill.

"This is going to be a hard issue," he said.

Another hard issue is the Iraq war, he said. Voters are upset that the Democratic Congress has been unable thus far to force the Bush administration to start bringing the troops home, Dodd said. He chided fellow Democrats for trying to broker a compromise, instead of pushing for a strong bill.

"The party made the mistake of trying to get a lot of people to sign on to something," he said. "The something became nothing."

Dodd also isn't happy with how fellow Democrats are dealing with Iran. He opposed a resolution the Senate passed Sept. 26 declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist group, saying President Bush could exploit it as a green light for military action against Iran.

He has been harshly critical of Clinton for supporting the nonbinding resolution. Clinton has said she voted for it to increase economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but he argued that the resolution does not specify diplomacy.

"You can have your own opinion," he said, "but not your own facts."

Dodd joined Clinton and 28 other senators on Thursday to write President Bush to tell him he has no congressional authority for war, but Dodd downplayed the significance of the letter, describing it as something Clinton believed she needed.

He said he has a "very uneasy feeling" that a drumbeat for war among some people in the Bush administration is taking the country on the same path that led to the Iraq war.

"Burn me once, your fault," he said. "Burn me twice, my fault."

While Dodd is barely registering in opinion polls, he said that voters' current interest in foreign policy will help trump the recent history of governors, not senators, winning the White House.

While his 26 years in the US Senate might disqualify him in another year, in this election executive experience is not as important as knowledge of the world, he said.

And with deep partisan divisions in Washington, a president can't just give orders like a chief executive officer, but must be able to persuade, which plays to his "skill set," Dodd said.

"I manage to bring people together and get things done," he said, ticking off the family leave law and children's health programs, among other legislative accomplishments.

He said he sees growing numbers of enthusiastic supporters on the ground, still believes he can win the nomination, and would drop out as soon as he doesn't.

"I know how to hold them. I know how to fold them," he said.

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