On immigration, promise and peril for Bush

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By Alex Isenstadt, POLITICO

141216_jeb_bush_hispanics_gty_1160_1160x629Jeb Bush may be the Republican Party’s solution to its deficit among Hispanic voters. But first Bush, who speaks Spanish, is married to a Mexican-American woman and has called illegal immigration an “act of love,” would have to survive the GOP primary.

How Bush runs as a compassionate and pragmatic-minded ally of the Hispanic community while convincing his party’s vocal conservative base that comprehensive immigration reform is a worthy cause will be a central challenge of his increasingly likely campaign for the White House.

After the 2012 election, which saw GOP nominee Mitt Romney receive just 27 percent of the fast-growing Hispanic vote, top Republicans worried their party could be locked out of the White House for a generation if it didn’t improve its standing among minorities. In the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush, a former Texas governor, picked up over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Those close to Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor who announced Tuesday that he’s “actively” exploring a presidential run, believe that, like his brother, he’d tap into a deep vein of potential Hispanic support in a way few other would-be Republican 2016 hopefuls can. Bush received a majority of that community’s vote in his 1998 and 2002 campaigns for Florida’s highest post.

“I think Jeb would be a game-changer with Hispanics,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist in Florida and a Bush ally. “You see, Jeb is not only completely bilingual, he is bicultural … He has both the cultural sensitivity and a strong lifelong record on issues affecting Hispanics.”

In an interview with a Florida TV station Tuesday, Bush expressed confidence that his stance on immigration wouldn’t cost him.

“You gotta protect the borders, enforce the law, be respectful of the rule of law and at the same time, be able to encourage young, aspirational people to come to our country. It’s a win-win,” Bush said. “I have no problems advancing that idea.”

At a time when many in the GOP — including some of Bush’s potential primary rivals — have adopted a harsh tone in addressing illegal immigration, many in the party regard Bush as a quiet voice who has succeeded in not offending Hispanics.

“The tone that he uses, the way he conducts himself, helps him get his point across,” said Republican Luis Fortuño, a former Puerto Rico governor. “It’s a trait he has — an ability to put himself in the shoes of his audience.”

While the contours of the still far-off 2016 presidential campaign are far from clear, it’s apparent that the Hispanic vote will be a prize. Whoever wins the GOP nomination will have to compete in states such as Nevada, where, according to Census figures, Hispanics make up 27 percent of the population, and Colorado, where they compose 20 percent.

Bush would present a stark contrast from Romney, who lost both states and who drew criticism during for declaring at one point that, as president, he would get undocumented immigrants to “self-deport.”

Bush, meanwhile, spent much of his eight years as Florida’s governor cultivating Hispanic support by addressing issues such as immigration and education reform.

“It’s a big difference from Mitt Romney who had absolutely no experience with the Hispanic community and who thought he could win without the Hispanic community,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a nonpartisan Cuban-American lobbying group. “I think there’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever in any way.”

Even some Democrats concede that Bush is positioned to make the battle for Hispanics more competitive than it’s been in years past.

“I think the jury’s still out,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist who has been active in studying Hispanic voting patterns in Texas. “He has an opportunity because he doesn’t have the history of hostility to Hispanics” that many Republicans do.

But in what’s likely to be a crowded Republican primary, one that will wind its way into conservative bastions such as Iowa and South Carolina, Bush will be vulnerable to charges that he is too moderate for a party that in recent years has drifted to the right.

“It depends on how he talks about it and how he explains it. … I have hope that people will listen to Jeb and hear him out,” Claver-Carone said. “The reality is, those views have never gotten a Republican into the White House.”

After Bush said in April that many who come to the United States without permission do so as an “act of love” for their families, one potential 2016 rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, tweaked him by saying the “rule of law matters.”

On Tuesday, after Bush’s announcement, Cruz deflected a question on how the former Florida governor’s position on immigration would play in a Republican primary. “Immigration will be a critical issue in this next election,” he would only say.

Bush’s defenders, however, contend that he will be able to navigate the rough waters of a Republican contest. In many primary states, they argue, he’ll be able to cobble together enough support from mainstream voters who are hungry for a pragmatic alternative.

“At the end of the day, some single-issue voters will never vote for him because he doesn’t espouse the ‘round them up and deport them all’ position,” Navarro said. “But a critical mass of voters will look at the complete package of positions, experience and accomplishments.”

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