Tensions over immigration tear away at GOP candidates

Republican activists could be pushing their eventual presidential candidate off a cliff over illegal immigration.

Candidates who have adopted a hard line on the issue have seemingly been rewarded while those who have favored a more modulated approach have been punished.

Pessimists worry that this could doom Republican efforts to attract Hispanic votes next November, something that would all but end the GOP’s chances of winning the White House, even at a time when President Obama is vulnerable by almost every other measure.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) rose vertiginously in the polls upon entering the race, and then fell just as sharply when his policy of permitting the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges in the Lone Star State became known.

Perry’s problem was amplified by his suggestion that those who disagreed did not “have a heart.”

He later described those words, uttered during a September debate in Orlando, Fla., as “inappropriate,” but the damage was done.

“Maybe Perry will recover. But, if not, the reason will be that he made a pro-Latino, pro-immigration comment,” said Lionel Sosa, who has worked as a media consultant on numerous Republican presidential campaigns, including those of John McCain and George W. Bush.

A rough corollary came with Herman Cain’s recent suggestion that the United States should build an electrified fence along the Mexican border capable of killing those who sought to cross it.

Challenged on this during an appearance on “Meet the Press” earlier this month, Cain said his comments were a joke. But the original remarks are preserved for posterity on YouTube, and the element of intended humor is difficult to discern. There is scattered laughter among the crowd but cheers and applause are more dominant.

In any event, the mini-furor over Cain’s comments has not noticeably hurt him in polls of Republican voters. Were he to become the nominee, however, he may not enjoy such immunity before a national electorate.

The “fence” comments “just show Mr. Cain’s ignorance,” said Neftali Partida, a Texas-based consultant who works with Republicans. “It is not the subject of immigration but the rhetoric of immigration that is the problem. Incivility does alienate Latinos.”

The whole issue of how the Republican Party relates to Hispanic people has vexed some of the GOP’s top strategists for years.

Back in 1996, presidential nominee Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.) won just 20 percent of the Hispanic vote, a figure that would condemn the party to perpetual opposition status were it to be repeated in future elections.

President George W. Bush improved dramatically on that showing in both 2000 and 2004, taking 35 percent in his first outing and a striking 44 percent in his second. Bush’s appeal may have been partly rooted in his own relatively centrist attitudes on the immigration issue but it was also evidence of adviser Karl Rove’s insistence that the GOP needed to tend carefully to Hispanics.

In the view of Rove, and others, many Hispanic Americans could be weaned away from their traditional support for Democrats by appealing to their socially conservative values and entrepreneurial spirit.

But such an effort would founder if the party were to be seen as gratuitously severe on immigration. And notably, Bush’s support for a 2005 immigration reform bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) could not save it from failure in a GOP-dominated Congress.

The next high-profile push on the issue, which also failed, came from a very different ideological direction. At the end of that year, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) authored a bill which, among other policies, would have made it a crime to help an illegal immigrant remain in the United States.

Such efforts moved conservative activist Grover Norquist to warn the party: “We can’t afford to do to Hispanics what we did to the Roman Catholics in the 19th Century: tell them we don’t like them and lose their vote for a hundred years.”

The problem, for Republicans, may be that many of its grassroots supporters just don’t see things that way.

Columbia University professor Rodolfo de la Garza said the pro-business elements of the GOP would welcome a pragmatic solution on immigration, but that they were not strong enough to carry the day.

Immigrants, he said, “are a cultural threat but an economic gain, and Republicans are divided. The ‘antis’ are winning because there aren’t all that many of the business types. They are important [to the party] for financial reasons but there are actually many more of the cultural, working class white types.”

The issue is complex. Opposition to the kind of policy Perry endorsed in Texas regarding in-state tuition is not confined to hardline conservatives. A CBS News poll conducted in late September and early October found that 68 percent of adults were against such a plan.

Given those numbers, an emphatically liberal approach to the immigration issue is not a big vote-winner either. This may be one reason why even the Obama administration has recently highlighted the record number of deportations of illegal immigrants (almost 400,000) conducted last fiscal year.

Immigration is clearly a difficult needle to thread. But some Hispanic Republicans have a starker worry: that their party sometimes seems as if it doesn’t even want to try.

“They just need to say: ‘Yes, we need a secure border, but we also need to pay respect to the immigrants who built our country,’” Lionel Sosa noted. “They tend not to say those things in the same sentence.”