06/19/2013 07:30 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2013

Immigration Sparks First Skirmishes In GOP's 2016 Presidential Primary

WASHINGTON -- It's a crucial statistic, and it animates the ferocious debate about immigration now consuming Congress: Of the 12 million Hispanic Americans who voted in 2012, only some 4 million voted for the Republican presidential candidate, Ol' Whatshisname.

Without a much better showing in future elections, the GOP has little hope of avoiding what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) calls a long-term demographic "death spiral."

Which is why it isn't surprising that the preliminary skirmishes of the GOP's 2016 campaign are over immigration reform: how to secure U.S. borders while offering citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants, some 8 million of whom came from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Paradoxically -- but perhaps hopefully for the GOP -- a surprisingly large number of its key 2016 players are Latinos. Their prominence is fortunate for the party. Their chances of rising to the top could well be boosted by their own life histories.

Democrats claim to be unimpressed. "The problem with the GOP and Latinos is ideological," said Sergio Bendixen, a leading Democratic strategist in the community. "It can no longer be solved with a Bush-like strategy based on 'hugs and kisses' or with charismatic Latino personalities, especially considering the fact that the two best-known are Cuban-American." (Cuban Americans already tend to be more conservative than their fellow Hispanics.)

"Latinos support a strong government role in the economy, a U.N.-based foreign policy, socialized medicine, public education, generous social and welfare programs," Bendixen told me. "They are probably the most left-wing constituency in our electorate. It's a tough challenge for the GOP to connect."

Still, the Republicans' crisis could be -- indeed for the party, almost has to be -- an opportunity for their Latino leaders.

Marco Rubio, a freshman senator from Florida who is the son of Cuban immigrants, leads the Republican immigration reform effort in the Senate. A potential ally -- or foe -- is another freshman senator, Ted Cruz of Texas, whose father was also a Cuban émigré.

In Massachusetts, Gabriel Gomez, a businessman, former Navy SEAL and son of Colombian immigrants, is the Republican candidate in a race to fill the unexpired Senate term of Secretary of State John Kerry. Should Gomez pull an upset against Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, he would immediately become a player not only in the Senate, but in the GOP nationally.

It's also worth remembering that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's wife is from Mexico (he met her as an exchange student); that Bush himself speaks fluent Spanish; and that his older brother, George W., won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote -- an all-time high for the GOP -- in his 2004 presidential reelection campaign.

Even possible Republican contenders who aren't Latino and don't speak Spanish are maneuvering their way carefully through the immigration reform debate. They, as much as the others, need to find a way to balance anti-immigrant sentiment at the GOP's grassroots with a more welcoming message to Hispanics.

So how are they approaching the issue so far, both as a matter of substance and as a test of their political maneuvering toward 2016?

Having been lauded by Big Media as a charming, photogenic, striving savior of the party, Rubio made bold to take the Senate lead on immigration, even though he is only serving his first term. In a Congress that has an increasingly hard time dealing with complex issues -- and that has failed to pass a major immigration reform measure in more than 20 years -- his charge to the front was the equivalent of a college freshman going immediately for a Ph.D.

To his credit, Rubio worked with a bipartisan "gang of eight" to hash out a compromise bill, although it was one he knew –- or should have known -- was too "soft" for much of his own party because it offered too many benefits to immigrants and not enough guaranteed border security. But since then, he has moved steadily to the right, even suggesting that he might oppose his own legislation if it does not incorporate tougher provisions than he was willing to insist on initially.

At only 42, Rubio won't be made or broken as a leader by the fate of the immigration bill. Still, a legislative triumph would show a level of skill and drive that could only enhance his 2016 prospects.

Cruz, so forceful and almost alarmingly blunt on most issues, is being careful on this one, at least so far.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was denounced by anti-immigration reform leaders this spring after he declared his general support for the effort. But when the gang of eight's bill was panned even by Rubio, Paul moved more aggressively to propose his own amendments. One would deny benefits to immigrants in the "pipeline" toward legalization; another would require detailed, yearly certification of progress toward a locked-tight southern U.S. border before undocumented immigrants get on the citizenship path.

Jeb Bush, playing the Florida and Bush-family senior statesman, has largely stayed above the congressional fray so far. He's confined himself to oddly laudatory statements about immigrants (they "are more fertile, and they love their families, and they have more intact families ...") and to joining with Karl Rove and mainstream business types as signatories on a newspaper ad calling for a tough but fair bill.

The consensus among GOP insiders is that either Rubio or Bush will run in 2016, but not both. For now they are allies; we'll see if it stays that way.

Supporters of Rand Paul are hoping that Bush does enter the race. They want to see him vacuum up the Florida cash that otherwise would go to someone they evidently fear more: Rubio.

Cruz has yet to make clear which way he will ultimately head on the still-evolving reform bill.

As for other possible GOP presidential contenders -- governors such as Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin's Scott Walker -- they haven't become leading players in this immigration drama. But if they are serious about running in 2016, they will have to.

For the game has already begun inside the Beltway.



10 Major U.S. Federal Immigration Laws