SAN ANTONIO -- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had arrived at a sure-fire, crowd-pleasing section of his stump speech at rally here on Monday, and he was going to milk it for everything it was worth.
“Immigration is a law enforcement issue, immigration is a national security issue, but immigration is also, powerfully, an economic issue,” Cruz said.
Shouts of “Yeah!” reverberated among the several hundred people gathered inside Shrine Auditorium.
“When you allow 12 million people to come into this country illegally,” Cruz continued, “they take jobs from American citizens, they take jobs from legal immigrants, and they drive down the wages of people all across this country.”
More cheers followed from the overwhelmingly white audience members who had come to hear Cruz speak a day before Super Tuesday in this majority Hispanic city.
“Democrats support illegal immigration because they think they’ll get votes there,” Cruz said.
That was the setup. Here comes the punch line:
“You know, the new politically correct term for ‘illegal immigrant’ is ‘undocumented immigrant,’” Cruz said.
Uproarious laughter ensued, as if the crowd had just been treated to one of the all-time great zingers from a skilled standup comedian.
The emotional resonance of the immigration issue among the Republican base can hardly be overstated.
But with Cruz and both other leading GOP candidates -- Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) -- trying to outdo one another on immigration tough talk, the party once again appears to be stumbling among the new generation of Hispanic voters who make up an increasing share of the electorate in key states.
And Democrats couldn't be happier about it.
“The bottom line is the only way these presidential candidates can move forward and get attention is by being very anti-immigrant, and the more anti-immigrant you are, the more support you get among those very conservative Republican primary voters,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. “Trump kind of set the bar, and now everybody else is trying to reach that bar … You turn on the TV and watch all the debates, and the issue is front and center, and it gets progressively worse as the debates go by.”
It’s not just in the debates where immigration gets prominence in the Republican race.
Monday’s big political news had Cruz and Rubio both calling on Trump to allow The New York Times to release a recording of an off-the-record interview, in which Trump supposedly suggests he may be willing to compromise on his plan to deport every undocumented immigrant. Trump's rivals calculate that willingness to modulate even a bit in expelling 12 million people would be an unforgivable apostasy.
Though some Texas Republicans have been able to boast of increasing their share of the vote among Hispanics in recent election cycles, rhetoric in the presidential race appears to overshadow those regional gains.
With Super Tuesday expected to solidify Trump's front-runner status, his standing with Hispanics in the general election is nothing short of abysmal.
A national poll by The Washington Post and Univision, released last week, shows only 16 percent of Hispanic voters had a favorable view of Trump, while 80 percent had an unfavorable view of him.
In the same poll, 51 percent of Hispanic voters said they intended to support the Democratic presidential nominee, while 14 percent said they would support the Republican nominee and 32 percent were unsure.
In 2012, Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, widely considered a significant factor in his loss.
And even if either Cruz or Rubio -- both Cuban-Americans -- could stem Trump’s momentum and somehow win the Republican nomination, both trail Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton among Hispanic voters by wide margins in hypothetical general election matchups. Both fall far short of the 40 percent threshold that President George W. Bush won in 2004.
“This is one thing that I’m really proud of the Latino community for: It doesn’t matter if you’re a Latino candidate,” said Luis Avila, a senior vice president of the Democratic group 270 Strategies. “What matters are the issues.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The Republican National Committee, after Romney's White House defeat in 2012, made it a top priority to attract Hispanics. An RNC internal commission called explicitly for the party to embrace immigration reform.
"We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," the authors of the RNC’s so-called autopsy report wrote in 2013. "If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."
That same year, Rubio jumped into a leadership role via the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which drafted a bill that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigration, along with measures to boost border security.
But then the realities of the restless GOP base set in. Rubio soon caved and abandoned his support for that legislation.
And then Trump got into the race with a speech that called Mexican migrants “rapists,” adding tepidly, “Some, I assume, are good people.”
Now, with Trump on the verge of running away with the nomination, Rubio and Cruz are left struggling to paint even him as insufficiently unyielding on the issue, highlighting the front-runner’s history of hiring foreign workers and of funding reform efforts.
It’s enough to instill a feeling of helplessness among pragmatic-minded Republicans.
“I think any sane person out there would realize there is nothing to benefit in deporting 11 to 12 million people,” said former Massachusetts Republican Senate nominee Gabriel Gomez. “The approach that they’re going down right now is the worst approach. You’re going to lose people all the way down the line in state and local elections, and you’re already at huge risk of losing a whole generation of millennials. … I don’t know how you stop this forest blaze right now."