In normal times, Steve King is an obscure figure—a low-ranking Republican congressman from rural western Iowa. But these aren't normal times: Iowa's caucuses are almost here. So King suddenly is a kingmaker and symbol of his party's growing—and politically risky—obsession with immigration, which is now the top concern among likely GOP voters in Iowa and No. 2 in New Hampshire and South Carolina. King favors deporting the nation's estimated 12 million illegals, and he is surveying the field for a nationally salable soulmate. "This is my 'destiny setter' issue," he told me. He plans to set up shop in a Des Moines hotel lobby until caucus night "so I can talk about this to everyone."
Heading into what could be a series of photo finishes, Republican candidates are trampling each other as they race toward the Kings of the party. The latest is Rudy Giuliani, who has the most distance to cover. As New York mayor, he ran what was widely considered a sanctuary city for illegals. Now he's airing a TV ad that applies his tough-guy persona to the issue (though he doesn't call for deportation). In an interview with author Bill Sammon, Giuliani suggested he wanted to deport the city's 400,000 illegals, but couldn't because the Clinton administration wouldn't go along. Giuliani's foes note he sued the administration to preserve benefits for illegals.
While Giuliani plays defense, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are attacking each other. As Massachusetts governor, Romney took some restrictive stands (no driver's licenses for illegals or in-state tuition assistance, for example). Now he aims to burst the Huckabubble in a new ad that points out that the former Arkansas governor once favored giving college scholarships to illegals. (Fred Thompson jumped in as well with a slick mail piece poking fun at "Huckabee U.") Eager to protect his lead in Iowa, Huckabee answered with a "secure America plan." The main feature: a 120-day "window" during which all illegals must "register … and leave the country" and get in line to come back. King remains suspicious, but he's impressed by the effort: "People are beginning to see how important this is."
Democratic strategists enjoy the "pander-rama." They think the general election can be won in the Southwest, where the ranks of Hispanic voters are swelling. They also think the angry tone of the GOP debate will turn off suburbanites, who think of themselves as tolerant and who like the cheap labor. "The Republicans are at such a low point that all they can do is speak to the fears of their base," says Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network. Polls consistently show most voters favor a package deal, like the one Congress considered, which would toughen border security, weed out criminals, amp up employee ID requirements, require English-language proficiency and offer a "path to citizenship."
But Democrats need to be careful what they wish for. As the economy weakens, the immigration issue could hurt them. "The Washington establishment has no idea what is about to hit them," says Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host. Without a package deal in Congress to protect them, Democrats are vulnerable to attacks on proposals like driver's licenses for illegals. Polls show voters oppose it, 31. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was forced to retreat from the idea, as was Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama is all for it. If he's the nominee, you'll hear a lot more about it—and not just from Steve King in Iowa.