The GOP Top Three Fall Out Over Immigration

Jeb Bush speaking at the “Economic Opportunity: The Right to Excel” event in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on April 28, 2015. Alvin Baez/Reuters

Houston once played a special role in American presidential history. It was there, in October 1960, that then-candidate John F. Kennedy addressed a group of Protestant ministers on the separation of church and state—a necessity, JFK's camp believed, in order to lay to rest anti-Catholic concerns.

Houston was back in the news last month, again for something that overshadows the election. The drama this time: Jeb Bush appeared before a gathering of Hispanic evangelicals and laid out his stance on immigration reform.

What the meeting demonstrated: Bush's strength and vulnerability on the topic.

His strength: not only his ability to speak fluent Spanish but to deliver a message that other Republicans dare not to. As The Washington Post reported, Bush told the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, "We have the ability because of immigration to be an emerging country again, to be full of optimism, to believe that our future is brighter than our present. But we have to fix a broken immigration system and do it in short order."

Bush told the audience that reform would mean increasing border security and expanding the possibilities for legal immigration. "But it also means dealing with the 11 million undocumented workers that are here in this country, 11 million people that should come out from the shadows and receive earned legal status.

"This country does not do well when people lurk in the shadows," he continued. "This country does spectacularly well when everybody can pursue their God-given abilities."

Now Bush's weakness: taking his desire to connect with Spanish-speaking audiences a step too far (as far as conservative-leaning, early-primary electorates would be concerned). For example, equating illegal immigration with "an act of love." Compassionate, yes. But also fingernails on the blackboard for his party's conservative base.

Before coming to Houston, Bush paid a visit to Puerto Rico and the Universidad de Metropolitana Cupey, where he had this to say about the island's future: "Puerto Rican citizens, U.S. citizens, ought to have the right to determine whether they want to be a state. I think statehood is the best path, personally. I have believed that for a long, long while. I'm not new to this."

Credit Bush with putting himself, quite literally, out on an island. Back in 2012, Mitt Romney also supported statehood—albeit, in a more nuanced fashion. The rest of the field in the election generally avoided statehood talk.

So let's see where two other leading Republicans—Scott Walker and Marco Rubio—end up on Puerto Rico, which offers candidates both abundant sunshine and 20 delegates to the 2016 national convention.

And, for that matter, where the Republican Lead Three (for now, anyway) stand on illegal immigration:

1. Bush

Back in February, at the Club for Growth's candidate procession, Bush was asked if he was going to tailor his immigration stance. His response: "If I go beyond the consideration of running, I'm not backing down from something that is a core belief. Are we supposed to just cower because at the moment people are all upset about something? No way, no how."

Bush said he would endeavor to decrease family-based chain migration in favor of more economic immigration. As for those already in the U.S.: "My belief is we need to give people a path to legal status. You pay your fines, you get provisional work permits, where you come out of the shadows; you pay taxes; you pay fines; you don't receive government assistance; you learn English; you don't commit crimes. Any of those things that you do would be a deportable offense."

2. Rubio

Three years ago, at this time, Rubio was pushing his compromise version of the Dream Act—and fighting an uphill (and, ultimately, losing) battle. ("I found it of interest," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters. "But the problem with this issue is that we are operating in a very hostile political environment.") Translation: no way, no how.

Today, as a candidate, Rubio's altered his message. This past weekend, in Iowa, he told The Des Moines Register that border security comes before legalization. The paper wrote: "Rubio acknowledged that public appetite for immigration reform is lower than it was even two years ago.... He and other senators "underestimated" the lack of trust Americans have in the federal government to secure the border. Gaining back trust will require boosting security along the U.S.-Mexico border, instituting a workable electronic employment verification system in which employers check prospective workers' immigration status, and developing a better tracking system for people who enter the country legally to ensure they don't overstay their visas."

3. Walker

A political adage says, "Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel." Wisconsin's governor is in a dustup with The Wall Street Journal over an editorial claiming that he doesn't understand much about immigration economics. (Walker had said he'd curb legal immigration to protect American workers.)

A month earlier, the same paper reported that Walker told a private dinner of New Hampshire Republicans that he backed the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. and eventually become eligible for citizenship—though, publicly, Walker has stated he's "not for amnesty."

All of which prompted Walker's campaign to push back hard on what a former aide categorized as a "full, Olympics-quality flip-flop." The odds of an anti-Walker super PAC broadcasting those words across Iowa and New Hampshire's airwaves?

So there you have it. Bush is digging and wagering that a general-election message can survive sticks and stones—and February and March primaries. Rubio is playing up secure borders. Walker is talking both legal and illegal immigration.

Does anyone here have an advantage? Or a decided disadvantage?

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. This article first appeared on his blog A Day at the Races.