It may seem odd that illegal immigration is a burning issue in rural Iowa, or that the corn state even has a "Hispanic vote." But it is precisely the influx of immigrants into small-town America over the past decade that has fueled the current national controversy. For many Republican primary voters, combating illegal immigration is an issue second only to the war in Iraq.
At the Republican CNN/YouTube debate, one citizen-questioner drew audience applause when he asked if the candidates would pledge to "veto any immigration bill that involves amnesty for those that have come here illegally."
The reference was to a sweeping Senate bill last year that would have stepped up enforcement while also legalizing millions of immigrants already in the country.
John McCain co-sponsored that bill, and he has met anger and opposition on the campaign trail because of it. When he attempted to answer the YouTube questioner by protesting, "We never proposed amnesty," a chorus of boos broke out, prompting moderator Anderson Cooper to interject, "Come on, please, let him answer."
While sticking to his view that some type of legalization will be needed eventually, McCain has made a concession to political necessity by saying that tougher enforcement is needed first.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres says that those deeply opposed to illegal immigration do feel passionate, but he has polled a lot on the topic and says this intensity only goes so far.
"They don't want a candidate who comes across as a fire-breathing, anti-Hispanic hater," Ayres says. "We have one of those and he has bombed. The last survey we did in South Carolina, Tom Tancredo got zero percent. Not a single respondent picked him for president."
Ayres notes the one candidate who has really soared in standings — Mike Huckabee — did so while taking the most temperate tone on immigration. He has repeatedly defended his support of in-state tuition for illegal immigrant children by saying, "You don't punish a child for the crime a parent commits. We are a better country than that."
But in recent weeks, rival Mitt Romney has relentlessly badgered Huckabee for his moderate positions on immigration. He issued the race's first negative TV ad, attacking Huckabee for supporting in-state tuition for migrants and for supporting "taxpayer-funded scholarships for illegal aliens."
In a head-spinning few days, Huckabee performed a political version of Extreme Makeover. He issued a nine-point immigration plan lifted largely from a group that seeks to reduce all immigration, legal and otherwise. The man who has several times said some anti-immigration activism is motivated by prejudice then picked up an endorsement from the founder of the Minuteman Project. At their Iowa press conference, Huckabee even apologized for earlier questioning the group's freelance border-watch brigades.
Huckabee has also put out his own TV spot on immigration, in which he intones, "no to amnesty, no to sanctuary cities," but makes no mention of his oft-stated support for giving illegal immigrants a way to become citizens.
Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani have had similar conversions. Giuliani, who once championed hard-working illegal immigrants as welcome in New York, recently said he would have deported them all if he could have.
Some GOP strategists worry the party risks alienating Hispanics, the country's largest and fastest-growing minority. But if that doesn't change the tone of the debate, other pressures might.
"Well, in the general campaign they have to be careful," says Jack Pitney, who teaches government at Claremont-McKenna College. Pitney says immigration may be red hot among primary voters, but it falls in importance among Republicans nationally. And, he says, the bigger GOP tent includes more libertarian and business-oriented factions, which see immigration as economic necessity.
"I would expect in the general election Republicans will still talk about immigration," Pitney says. "But we'll see the red-meat appeals confined to direct-mail pieces sent to Republican base voters."