EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Ron Paul , Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann sing the National Anthem gather before a CNN republican presidential debate, November 2011.
In an election cycle expected to focus heavily on the economy, it's been immigration, and how to handle the millions of undocumented immigrants who reside in the U.S. illegally, that has tripped up Republican presidential candidates seeking their party's nomination.
The leading Republican contenders are being forced to balance hawkish posturing on immigration in the Republican primary against maintaining their electability against President Obama, whose campaign is all-too-happy to highlight the GOP candidates’ effort to outflank each other.
It’s been former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who has used immigration the most as a cudgel against fellow candidates, particularly Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, each of whom Romney has portrayed as soft on illegal immigration.
Perry said opponents don't "have a heart" if his primary opponents didn't favor, as he did, in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants who had long established residency in Texas.
Fellow candidates, namely Romney, pounced, and Perry's "heartless" moment, as it came to be known, contributed to his slide in the polls.
Conservatives are now murmuring about Gingrich, who said at a pre-Thanksgiving debate that he favored a "humane" policy that wouldn't expel undocumented families that had laid down roots in the U.S. for decades. Gingrich hasn't backed down from that comment.
The end result is that immigration – less so than tax plans, differing approaches to foreign policy or even jobs plans – has emerged as a stumbling block in the primary campaign, with just less than five weeks to go until voting begins.
Perry and Gingrich have responded by trying to prove their conservative bona fides other ways. Perry rolled out an endorsement, for instance, by Maricopa County, Ariz. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a vocal opponent of illegal immigrants. And Gingrich has said he would make English the official language of the U.S., and fully secure the border by Jan. 1, 2014.
Romney’s used immigration to fend off surging who have tried to emerge as his alternative. The former Massachusetts governor assailed Perry’s college tuition plan, and he accused Gingrich of having "offered a new doorway to amnesty" with his immigration plan.
But Romney has also struggled to manage immigration as an issue; he said Tuesday evening on Fox News that illegal immigrants "should get in line with everyone else" who's applying for U.S. citizenship, and be given no special preference. But he hedged on what he would do with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. Romney said it "makes more sense for them to go home" and apply, but wouldn't address whether he would seek the deportation of illegal immigrants while they're awaiting citizenship.
Hispanic Republican strategists express concern that the would-be nominees’ courting of the right could undercut their standing in the general election.
“This is only vote-moving issue for people who vote against you because they think you hate immigrants,” said Mario H. Lopez, the president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund.
The problem, said Mercedes Schlapp, a former Spanish-language spokeswoman in the Bush administration, is that none of the candidates have mastered finding a tone that satisfies both Hispanics and conservatives.
“We can all say secure the border, but what are you going to do about the 12 million people here?” she asked. “Really, everyone's giving these simplistic answers to this very complex issue.”
Obama’s campaign is poised to make an issue of it, too. “We may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim,” the president told Univision about the GOP candidates’ stance on immigration. (The Democratic National Committee has attacked Romney on immigration, too.)
Sharon Castillo, a former Republican National Committee (RNC) official in charge of Spanish-language outreach, said she was skeptical of Obama’s ability to court Hispanic voters since he’d failed to advance the DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform.
But, she said, the GOP contenders must still work to craft a policy that didn’t ward off Latinos.
“I think it should be pretty obvious to most Republican candidates in the field right now that they need to have a large and welcome tent,” she said. “And Hispanics being the largest minority in the country, it would be less than strategic to alienate them.”
Romney’s stance in particular frustrates Hispanic Republicans, who see the same kind of shape-shifting on immigration that Romney’s been accused of when it comes to other issues.
“For Romney it's been interesting to watch, because I think people are still trying to figure out where Romney's at,” Schlapp said. Romney said in a 2006 interview with Bloomberg News it would be impractical to track down and deport illegal immigrants – a position remarkably similar to Gingrich’s. Lopez calls Romney’s position now “disingenuous.”
Of course, Romney’s foes have also tried to make immigration an issue for him. Perry accused Romney of hiring a landscaping company that employed illegal immigrants at a debate this fall, something Romney rejected doing because, as he explained, “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake!”
That’s not to say that Romney’s stance will necessarily hurt him in the primary. Republicans lean strongly – 71 to 27 percent, according to a mid-November CNN/ORC poll – toward developing a plan to stop illegal immigrants and deport the ones who are in the U.S. versus allowing them a path to citizenship.
The public as a whole leans toward deportation, too, but a hardline stance could alienate independent and Latino voters, especially in crucial swing states like New Mexico, Colorado or Nevada, and even Florida.
Obama leads Romney and Perry among Hispanic voters, according to an Univision/Latino Decisions poll conducted in early November; moreover, Hispanic voters said they are more likely to support candidates who support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and they identified Democrats as the party that most closely fits that view.
But that’s still a shift for the GOP, which tried to claim a share of the Latino vote under President George W. Bush, who had pushed for supporting a plan that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But conservatives in Congress broke with the Republican president and derided the plan as “amnesty” and helped defeat the plan.
It’s not clear, though, whether support for anything less than a hardline stance for a Republican candidate is a poison pill. Arizona Sen. John McCain managed to secure the GOP nomination in 2008 despite his support for Bush’s program.
Romney, after all, scored three endorsements this week from three influential Hispanic Republicans in Florida – Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, along with former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart – who brushed off his immigration positions.
“I don’t agree with Gov. Romney’s position on immigration, but I agree with him solidly on the economy, and for me that’s the driving force in this election,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Washington Post.
And Gingrich, the GOP strategists suggested, might also stand to benefit in the general election – if his immigration stance doesn’t torpedo his primary campaign.
“One could argue that Newt is best positioned to get that vote, but the jury's still out,” Castillo said.