The issue of immigration, which barely simmered during the first three Republican presidential contests, could reach a boil now that the candidates have arrived in Florida for the state's Jan. 31 primary.
Florida, with its large and influential Latino population, provides the earliest gauge of the difficulty facing any eventual GOP nominee in courting Hispanic voters, who increasingly view Republicans' rhetoric about immigration as anti-Hispanic.
A tough stance on immigration broadly appeals to GOP primary voters, but less so in the general election of Americans more open to the idea of providing illegal immigrants a path to legal status, according to polling.
And many Republicans worry that a perceived "anti-immigrant" nominee will undermine the party's 2012 strategy to reach out to Latinos in swing states, such as Nevada, Colorado and Virginia, who have grown ambivalent about President Obama.
A December survey of 500 Latino registered voters, conducted by impreMedia and the polling group Latino Decisions, showed that 46 percent of Hispanics believe Republicans "don't care too much" about them. Another 27 percent said Republicans "are being hostile."
"They have a very serious problem," Matt Barreto, the principal pollster for Latino Decisions, has said of the Republican Party.
At the same time, the poll also found that Hispanics' continued support for Obama has softened significantly since 2008.
The candidate squarely in the crosshairs of Latino and pro-immigrant groups is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who they warn will find a hostile reception in the Sunshine State. Among his opponents, Romney has taken the toughest stance against illegal immigration, promising just before the Iowa caucuses that he'd veto a DREAM Act bill. Romney has opposed any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Last week, Romney campaigned in South Carolina with Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state better known nationally as the architect of laws passed in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere that crack down on illegal immigrants.
In response, Somos Republicans, a grassroots Latino Republican group, decided to endorse former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Several of Somos' leaders are working for the Gingrich campaign in various states, including Florida, citing his support for granting legal status to those who have lived most of their lives in the United States. Somos has called on two of Florida's leading Latino politicians, Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, to withdraw their endorsements of Romney (the lawmakers have shown no such inclination).
"Romney is committing political suicide," says DeeDee Garcia Blase, who founded Somos but no longer runs it. Blase, once a GOP organizer in Arizona, has renounced her party affiliation in protest over the Republican-led state laws modeled on the 2010 bill passed in her home state. Blase has formed the nonpartisan Tequila Party, a group aimed at countering Tea Party groups that seeks to mobilize Latinos to vote for candidates who support the granting of legal status for immigrants.
"There's a change going in Florida right now, based on this whole Kris Kobach endorsement. It's really lighting up Latino media," Blase says.
Cuban Americans Power The Florida GOP
Florida is arguably the only state where Latino Republican voters matter in presidential primaries, thanks to the fiercely party-loyal bloc of Cuban Americans in South Florida. They were a driving force in Republican John McCain's pivotal 2008 victory there.
Latinos make up about 22.5 percent of Florida's population, according to the Census Bureau. Cuban Americans number roughly 1.2 million, about 28.6 percent of the state's Latino population. And Latinos make up about 13 percent of Florida's registered voters.
Both Romney and Gingrich are aggressively trying to lock in the support of prominent Latinos in Florida. So far, Romney's stance on immigration isn't hurting his efforts.
Romney months ago received the endorsements of several of Florida's most prominent Latino politicians, Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Diaz-Balart's brother, Lincoln, a former congressman. Romney also has the support of former Sen. Mel Martinez. All of them are Cuban American Republicans.
Reps. Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen part company from Romney by supporting the DREAM Act, which would establish a path to citizenship for as many as 800,000 people under age 36 who arrived in the U.S. as children and attend college or serve in the military.
Pro-immigrant activists say a recent encounter between Diaz-Balart and a DREAM Act supporter in Miami signals what they have planned for Romney in Florida. On a campaign stop promoting Romney's candidacy last week, Diaz-Balart was challenged by a DREAM Act supporter in the audience.
"You have been such a friend to us, I just don't understand," the local college student told Diaz-Balart in Spanish, referring to the congressman's support for Romney.
Another prominent Cuban American, Al Cardenas, a key Romney backer during his 2008 presidential bid, has decided to remain neutral during the primaries due to his position as the head of the American Conservative Union. So, too, has Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the GOP's rising stars who also is Cuban American and from Miami.
For his part, Gingrich has hitched his Hispanic outreach in part to South Florida's third congressman, David Rivera, whose support could be dubious given that Rivera is the target of ongoing criminal investigations.
Gingrich's Florida steering committee includes Cuban Americans, and past political enemies, Xavier Suarez and Joe Carollo, both former mayors of Miami. Leading the campaign's national Hispanic outreach is longtime Gingrich aide Sylvia Garcia, who is based in Miami.
Immigration Less Important To Florida Hispanics
Ultimately, the immigration debate sure to start this week in Florida—as early as the debate in Tampa Monday night—will be about optics for Latinos outside the state.
Many Latinos in Florida aren't so sensitive to immigration issues. That's because the majority of Cuban Americans have legal status, thanks to U.S. policy uniquely granting immigrants from the island political asylum. And the state's second-largest Hispanic group, Puerto Ricans, are American citizens.
"Latinos in Florida are much less worried about immigration," says political science professor Eduardo Gamarro, of Florida International University. "Here we more than likely have solved our immigration problems and our families are probably in route to solving their immigration problems, or have solved them."
Gamarro says Hispanics in Florida are more concerned about the economy and jobs, a key reason Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen are able to support Romney without facing backlash from their Cuban American constituents.
"That's a very disciplined voting bloc," Gamarro says of Cuban Americans. "Romney can come down here and maybe tone down some of his statements, but he's not going to get in trouble with the Hispanic voters who really matter. He has more to leeway to say things here than he would among other Hispanic groups in the country."
But the rhetoric in Florida is being closely watched by Latinos nationwide.
"Most Republicans are aware of the problem, and I think Romney is very aware of the need for Republicans to do better with that segment of the electorate," says Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "But it's a tough balance. On the one hand, your base wants a tough stand on immigration, but you also have to win the general election."