Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, son and brother of former presidents and a favorite of the Republican establishment to run for president in 2016, set off a fury this week with conciliatory remarks on immigration that served as a potent reminder of how vexing the issue remains for his possible White House ambitions and the party itself ahead of this year's congressional elections.
Bush, who married a Latina, speaks fluent Spanish and governed a state with a booming Hispanic population, has long urged his fellow Republicans to show more compassion for those who enter the United States 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, accused Bush of "pandering." Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another presidential prospect, and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said the country should enforce the "rule of law."
Republicans have been wringing their hands about immigration since President Barack Obama dominated the rapidly growing Hispanic vote in his re-election victory in 2012. Leaders of the party have called for it to win over Hispanic voters or risk becoming a minor party in the future as Hispanics steadily make up a larger portion of the electorate.
A top issue for Hispanics is of course immigration reform, and some of the Republican 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 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 Republican 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 party 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 party's core base of predominantly white voters critical, so House Republicans want to avoid an immigration fight that could alienate them.
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 crucial states, from Florida to Colorado to Nevada.
Some see a new opportunity for the Republican party to appeal to Latinos, many of whom have soured on 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.
In contrast to the 2012 nomination fight, most of the Republicans' 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 party'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 Republican officials to disagree without further alienating a voter group they're trying to attract.
Bush has struggled to articulate his views in a party that has changed dramatically since the last time he ran for office in 2002.
Bush released a book last year 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.
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report.
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.