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The GOP Congress' immigration fight is a problem for some of the GOP's 2016 candidates

2016 will not be this much of a lovefest — among these candidates, or between them and the GOP base.
2016 will not be this much of a lovefest — among these candidates, or between them and the GOP base.
Joe Raedle/Getty

How important do Republicans think it is to have buy-in from immigration hardliners? This week, the party's giving two different answers to that question. In Congress, House Republican leadership has invited the ferocious anti-immigration reformer Rep. Steve King (R-IA) to help shape the conference's strategy on immigration. But in the 2016 presidential field, three of the highest-profile likely candidates don't exactly have the trust of the party's anti-"amnesty" base.

Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Mitt Romney are all taking steps to get into the 2016 race — setting up a potential field whose immigration positions are less definitively hawkish as many of their colleagues on Capitol Hill, including some of the newest members of Congress who were just elected this fall.

Rubio, Romney, and Bush have all indicated that they want to help the Republican Party grow beyond its older, white voter base — something that most political analysts feel it's going to have to do, in the long run. All three understand that taking a hard line on immigration is an obstacle to that growth, and that's why the Republican base has good reason not to trust any of them to take a firm line against "amnesty." But it's not clear that any candidate is going to be able to survive the GOP primary without taking an explicit hardline stance — especially when Republicans in Congress are making a fight with Obama over immigration such a high priority.

Each candidate has taken his own approach to threading the needle on immigration: attempting to take the base seriously, while keeping his options open to win over Latino voters in a general election. But each has struggled. Here's how.

Jeb Bush

jeb bush book

This book became slightly outdated almost as soon as it was published. (Alex Wong/Getty)

Bush has a record as an immigration reformer. Like his brother George W. Bush, he's historically supported a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.

The former Florida governor's 2013 book, Immigration Wars, was an attempt to extend an olive branch to the hardliners in his party, by recommending that unauthorized immigrants living in the US be allowed to get legal status but not citizenship. Unfortunately for Bush, the timing was epically bad, as the book came out right when four Republican senators — including Florida's Rubio — were endorsing a Senate bill that would allow unauthorized immigrants to become citizens.

The flip-flop didn't attract any praise from the base. It did, however, attract the attacks of immigration reformers, who felt Bush was abandoning both his own principles and the reformers within his own party. Rubio predicted that Bush would "come around on citizenship." He was right; Bush flip-flopped again shortly after his book was released.

How Bush will survive an outing with the GOP base during a primary race is unclear. For now, he's certainly positioning himself as a diversity candidate. The website for his new leadership PAC, Right to Rise, uses diverse images — and has a Spanish-language version available.

Marco Rubio

rubio gang of eight

Remember when Marco Rubio was happy to be working on a comprehensive immigration bill? (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call)

Rubio is also looking ready for a run. And his own history with immigration reform is muddled.

During the Bush flap, he offered the most eloquent defense of a path to citizenship — one he echoed many times while the Senate was considering its immigration bill:

"I thought about that issue a lot and [went] back and forth on it before I signed on to my principles and I just concluded that it's not good for the country in the long term to have millions and millions of people who are forever prohibited from becoming citizens," Rubio told reporters on his way to a Senate vote. "That hasn't worked out well for Europe."

But these days, Rubio is the one touting a book, American Dreams, to repair his relationship with the GOP base — in preparation for a run in 2016, which he says he's "cleared hurdles" to do. And it's Rubio who's now trying to find common ground with immigration hawks by disavowing his own record on immigration: endorsing a "piecemeal" approach that would wait to address the unauthorized population until the border has been secured (a concept that isn't well defined), rather than the comprehensive bill he worked on in 2013.

The book is the latest step in a campaign Rubio's been engaged in since the middle of 2013: trying to win back the affections of the GOP base, which became hugely distrustful of him after his work on the Senate immigration bill. It's not at all clear that he's made any progress, just as there's no sign that Bush's attempts to find common ground with hardliners worked at all. Immigration hardliners see any potential legal status as "amnesty," and don't tend to differentiate between legalization and citizenship, and they are often skeptical of politicians whose records show they're soft on the issue.

Mitt Romney

etch a sketch romney

Didn't work last time. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney realized that he could knock out potential rivals by running to their right on immigration — and so he did, culminating in the declaration that he wanted unauthorized immigrants to "self-deport." But after his primary position defined him to Latino voters in the general election, he only won 27 percent of the Latino vote.

Romney has since declared that the biggest mistake he made as a presidential candidate in 2012 was not investing enough in "outreach" to communicate his positions to Latinos — particularly about immigration.

In essence, what he's saying is that he didn't put enough effort in to erase the memory of the hard line he'd taken in the primaries. But as I have written previously, it's not clear that any candidate is going to successfully be able to "Etch-a-Sketch" on immigration during the 2016 campaign: both immigrant advocates and conservatives are looking to pin candidates' positions down, and hold them to their views, throughout the campaign.

Bush, Rubio and Romney are all candidates who have shown they're interested in shifting to the right on immigration to win the trust of hardliners. Will it work in 2015? And if it does, will the winner of the nomination in 2016 really be able to make Latinos forget what happened the year before?