The 1992 presidential campaign boiled down to this memorable slogan from Bill Clinton's camp: “It’s the economy, stupid!” The 2012 contest for the GOP presidential nomination is now being reduced to an intriguing variation: “It’s all about immigration, stupid!”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry touched the immigration hot button and lost support from Tea Party voters after saying conservatives opposed to in-state university tuition for illegal immigrants revealed a lack of compassion or “heart.”
This week, in a desperate attempt to show he is tough on illegal immigrants, Perry wrapped his arms around Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff famed for his brass knuckle handling of illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, who has been playing to the hard-right by promising make the southern U.S. border into a 21st century version of the Berlin Wall, went to Florida this week to claim the support of three prominent Cuban-Americans who disagree with his immigration policies but still support him as the best GOP nominee to take on President Obama.
And Newt Gingrich is pulling off a death-defying political strategy by holding on to first place in several polls despite calling for “a way” to make illegal immigrants into legal citizens. Gingrich’s proposal boils down to the “amnesty” so often dismissed as an invitation for more illegal immigrants to cross the U.S. border.
How did immigration come to be the defining issue in the stretch run of the campaign as the candidates pull within a month of the Iowa Caucuses?
The short answer is threefold:
First, no one has brilliant ideas to boost the economy which is slowly but surely showing signs of climbing back to a respectable rate of growth.
Second, conservative anger over the national health care law is in the dock while the issue sits before the Supreme Court.
And third, the immigration story is hot right now, a throbbing, controversial policy argument in key red states such as South Carolina, Texas and Alabama but also in Iowa, which has seen a sharp jump in its Hispanic population.
Now Gingrich has added a defiant, daring political strategy that is inflaming the immigration issue. Gingrich is calling for the GOP to get beyond the anger and embrace immigration reform.
Gingrich is adapting the same stand as America’s top businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, former President Bush, and the man who won the 2008 GOP nomination while opposing mass deportation – John McCain.
All the other GOP candidates – with the exception of Ron Paul – are mouthing the standard, hard line deport them all while building a big wall approach.
Gingrich’s challenge to the conservative grassroots of the party makes him the center of debate and raises his standing with the GOP establishment that had dismissed his candidacy.
“I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.” The former House Speaker declared confidently during a recent debate.
And he then deftly put conservatives on the defensive by couching his position in terms of protecting the family, community and churches.
"If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out” he added.
The power of conservatives opposed to immigration reform has its limits and Gingrich is calling them out. It is important to remember that less than a year after the Bush plan fell apart the hardliners were unable to stop John McCain -- the bill’s chief sponsor in Congress – from getting the 2008 GOP nomination.
Newt is betting that the forces opposed to comprehensive immigration reform do not have enough leverage to cost him the nomination either.
Moreover, Newt can now make the argument that if he is the Republican nominee, he will be in the best position to appeal to Hispanic voters. With the great and growing influence of Hispanic voters, this argument has real currency amongst Republican voters who want to strengthen the party for the 2012 general election campaign and beyond.
Earlier this year, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund projected that 12.2 Hispanic voters will be going to polls in 2012. That is 8.7 percent of the country's total.
About 9.7 million Latinos voted in the 2008 election with Barack Obama winning their votes by a 2 to 1 margin.
Yet, there are some grassroots conservatives who are so angry over the issue that they seem to be oblivious to the long-term political consequences of their support for hard-line anti-immigration measures.
Estad atentos. Stay tuned.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His latest book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) which was released in July.