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2016 Republicans might have to run immigration gauntlet in Iowa


CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The immigration reform proposal pending before Congress could be a dicey proposition for Republican presidential contenders come 2016, when they visit this first-in-the-nation caucus state.

Republicans in Washington are in virtual agreement that they must do more to broaden the party’s appeal to the increasingly influential bloc of Hispanic voters. And many of those GOP leaders argue that supporting an immigration reform law that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is a good starting point.

But the party’s eventual standard-bearer in 2016 will likely have to run a gauntlet of primaries that begins with Iowa’s caucuses. And catering to the Hawkeye State’s voters could force White House hopefuls to the right – not just in 2016, but in deciding how to posture themselves toward the immigration reform law making its way through Congress this year.

Matthew Holst / Matthew Holst / AP

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks at the Iowa GOP Lincoln Dinner event, Friday, May 10, 2013, at the Hotel at Kirkwood Center, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Two senior members of the state’s Republican congressional delegation – longtime Sen. Charles Grassley and Rep. Steve King – have been some of the most outspoken critics of the “Gang of Eight” bipartisan immigration overhaul currently making its way through the Senate committee process. Both dished out plenty of red meat to the party faithful during speeches at Friday night’s Lincoln Dinner.

“It gives amnesty to and legalizes everybody who's in America illegally today,” King said of the Senate proposal, invoking a word – amnesty – that reflects deep conservative trepidation toward immigration reform. “This bill destroys the rule of law, and it forever produces contempt for the rule of law.”

“We can't afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. And, I want you to know, I learned a lesson, and I want you to know that I — and we — screwed up in 1986,” Grassley said. “The lesson learned: you reward illegality, and you get more of it.”

Their words amount to a caution sign for Republican presidential hopefuls with designs of competing in the Iowa caucuses in 2016.

Some Republicans, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican co-author of the Gang of Eight proposal, probably have no choice but to embrace the legislation and its path to citizenship because of their close involvement in its creation. And indeed, Rubio and his conservative cachet might help bring some conservatives on-board with the eventual bill.

“I think that he is one of the people that's been trying to work to find a reasonable approach toward that, that would secure our borders and would find a reasonable way to deal with people who have been here a long time,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, R, told NBC News. “I'm going to see what Marco Rubio says about it. I trust him.”

Other would-be Republican presidential candidates can afford to be more circumspect.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one such potential hopeful who’s previously called for immigration reform, told reporters in Iowa that the Senate bill needs tougher border-security provisions, especially for it to have any chance of passing the Republican-controlled House. To that end, Paul termed himself the “bridge” between the two chambers.

“I'm the bridge between people who won't consider it at all to people who want it,” he said. “I'm in the middle such that I'll vote for it if I think it'll do the right job and it creates border security, doesn't create a new pathway to citizenship, and allows people to get in an existing line, the same way someone in Mexico City would get in line.”

“So I think there's a lot of room for me to help the bill, but we'll see,” Paul added.

But it’s also easy to imagine at least one Republican contender running to the right on the issue of immigration in hopes of outflanking his competitors in Iowa. That temptation – and its repercussions – was on full display during the 2012 primaries, when Mitt Romney used immigration to run to the right of his primary challengers. But his comments during that drawn-out primary came back to haunt him during the general election, when Romney notched a record-low performance among Hispanic voters for a recent Republican presidential nominee.

Regardless of their stance, A.J. Spiker, the Iowa Republican Party’s chairman, cautioned White House hopefuls to be ready to answer questions about their approach to immigration come 2016.

“The one thing I think Republicans agree on, absolutely, on immigration is a secured border,” he said. “After that, you really do head off in some different directions.”

He added: “So what I believe is that whatever a candidate's position is, when they come to Iowa, they're going to have to explain their position to Iowa Republicans. They're going to have to explain why they supported X; why they supported X over Y.”

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