MIAMI (AP) — With three little words, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush set off a fury this week that served as a potent reminder of how difficult the immigration issue remains for his possible presidential ambitions and the Republican Party.
An early GOP establishment favorite, Bush has long urged his fellow Republicans to show more compassion for those who enter the country illegally. But when he described illegal immigration in an interview as an "act of love" by people hoping to provide for their families, the backlash from his own party was swift and stinging.
Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho accused Bush of "pandering." Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and House Speaker John Boehner said the country should enforce the "rule of law." And conservative commentator Michelle Malkin created a new Twitter hashtag: #CancelJebBush.
In a speech Thursday night to an annual gathering of Connecticut Republicans, Bush noted the negative response to his remarks but said he sees no conflict between enforcing the law and "having some sensitivity to the immigrant experience."
Some of the party's most powerful insiders and financiers are concerned immigration could define the coming nominating contest in the way it did in 2012. Like Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was jeered when he implied that his rivals were heartless if they opposed a law that lets some children of undocumented immigrants pay in-state tuition at public colleges.
The 2012 GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, took a hard line and advocated "self-deportation" for those here illegally. He won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, the lowest portion for a Republican in 16 years.
"The worst thing that can happen to a political party is not for voters to decide they don't like you," said Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant and former Romney adviser. "It's for voters to decide you don't like them, and that's where the Republican Party is right now."
The Republican National Committee has urged the GOP to embrace an immigration overhaul, but comprehensive legislation remains stalled in Congress. Action is unlikely in an election year with high stakes. All 435 House seats, and 36 in the Senate, are on state ballots. Republicans need to gain only six Senate seats to win majority control from Democrats. The political calculus makes the GOP's core base of voters critical, so House Republicans want to avoid an immigration fight that could alienate them. But some establishment Republicans say the delay threatens the long-term future of the GOP.
"It's going to kill the Republican Party," said Al Hoffman, a Republican megadonor who chaired George W. Bush's presidential campaigns.
He and others argue the GOP needs a nominee with a "Nixon-goes-to-China mentality"— in which the party leader takes an audacious, if not popular, step— on issues such as immigration. They suggest that's necessary in part to peel away some Hispanic voters from Democrats in 2016.
For Bush, the debate is personal. His wife, Columba, was born and grew up in Mexico. The two met while Bush was an exchange student there; she is now an American citizen.
On Sunday, in an interview with Fox News before an audience at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas, Bush said immigrants who enter the country illegally should, in fact, pay a penalty. But he added that he viewed such a violation as "a different kind of crime."
"Yes, they broke the law, but it's not a felony," he said. "It's an act of love."
Hispanics are a crucial voting bloc in an increasing number of swing-voting states, from Florida to Colorado to Nevada.
Some see a new opportunity for the GOP to appeal to Latinos, many of whom have soured on President Barack Obama because of his administration's record-setting number of deportations.
"Hispanics are eager to hear from a leader in the Republican Party talk about immigration in the way that Jeb Bush talked about it," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the country's largest Hispanic civil rights organization. "Some may argue that a bold country-first stance on immigration cannot win the nomination, but what is certain is that a divisive, anti-immigration stance does not win the presidency in a nation of immigrants."
In contrast to the 2012 nomination fight, most of the potential 2016 presidential contenders have signaled support for some kind of immigration overhaul. But they remain deeply divided over whether legislation should offer a pathway to citizenship for those living here illegally. After the Senate passed a bipartisan measure last year that would do just that, the barrage of conservative criticism virtually silenced the GOP's most outspoken immigration advocates, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
The furor over Bush's remarks shows the potential perils of picking up the issue, especially in the early voting states that play an outsized role in choosing party nominees. Bush's "act of love" comment was pithy and provocative enough to stir deep discomfort in a party still searching for a single message on the subject. And it challenged GOP officials to disagree without further alienating a voter group they're trying to attract.
"We appreciate the compassion in the statement, but the best compassion you can show a people is to uphold justice," said Tamara Scott, a RNC committeewoman and prominent Christian conservative in Iowa.
Bush, the two-term, Spanish-speaking former governor of a state with a booming Hispanic population, has struggled to articulate his views in a party that has changed dramatically since the last time he ran for office in 2002.
Last year, Bush released a book that championed legal status — but not citizenship— for illegal immigrants, seemingly contradicting his past statements. But in recent months, he has been giving speeches around the country that often include a full-throated defense of an immigration overhaul. Speaking at a recent financial advisers' conference in Florida, Bush lauded immigrants as "the risk takers," arguing that they embody the entrepreneurial spirit of America and invigorate the country's economy.
Katon Dawson, a South Carolina Republican strategist and Perry adviser, said Bush is wise to detail his nuanced positions so that potential rivals can't easily define his immigration stance if he decides to run.
"Look, the word 'amnesty' is a killer" in a Republican primary, Dawson said. "So you've got to take every chance you get to explain yourself ahead of the campaign."
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Susan Haigh in Stamford, Conn., contributed to this report.
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