Hasta La Vista

By Dana Milbank
Friday, December 21, 2007

DES MOINES, Iowa

Tom Tancredo is an angry man.

We know this because he has proposed dropping bombs on Mecca. We know this because he sang "Dixie" at a South Carolina gathering full of Confederate flags and white supremacists. And we know this because he wants to expel 12 million people now living in the United States.

Now, the Republican congressman from Colorado has a new reason to be angry: The voters of Iowa, inexplicably, do not want him to be their president.

"I know I cannot win," he confessed at a lightly attended news conference in the Marriott hotel here, where a balky sound system -- made in China! -- marred the announcement that he was quitting the presidential race. Thus, just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Tancredo determined that "it was best for the cause that I step down."

A grand total of 18 staff members and supporters -- some wearing pins proclaiming "Proud member of Tom's Army Against Amnesty" -- stood to the side and fought back tears. Adding to the pain, the Marriott restaurant, just steps from the meeting room where Tancredo quit the race, was serving a "South of the Border Thursday" lunch buffet.

The supporters passed by the restaurant and went upstairs to a hotel room to mourn their candidate's departure from the race. Conveniently, all the Tancredo supporters were able to fit in one elevator.

This week's Washington Post-ABC News poll put Tancredo's support at 2 percent in Iowa, down from 5 percent in the summer. While that's still double Rep. Duncan Hunter's haul, Tancredo could accurately conclude from that poll that 98 percent of Iowa Republicans are against him.

And while some say his deport-'em-all illegal immigration proposal is irrational, there was no disputing Tancredo's analysis of the race Thursday: "Somebody's going to be the president of the United States. It's not going to be me."

But that's when Tancredo's logic broke down and his anger crept in. In response to questions, he admitted he was pulling out to help defeat somebody he dislikes more than an undocumented Mexican in the desert: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the new Republican front-runner here with what Tancredo called an "abysmal" record of "inviting" illegal immigrants. "It was important in making this decision -- you bet your life it was," Tancredo said.

Never mind that Huckabee was tough enough on immigration to win the support of the border-vigilante Minuteman Project. Tancredo said he is throwing his support behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a man who has twice entrusted his landscaping to illegal immigrants and who only two years ago described as "reasonable" efforts by Sen. John McCain to let illegal immigrants become legal. Back then, Romney disputed Tancredo's characterization of the McCain plan as the dreaded "amnesty."

Tancredo's blind rage against Huckabee seemed to have gotten the better of his judgment, for he embraced Romney as a true believer in the immigrant crackdown. "This morning, I met with Governor Mitt Romney," Tancredo said, and "I am convinced he is committed to the principles I've outlined." Specifically, Romney "will require those who are presently here illegally to return home."

Oh? "The governor has stated he doesn't believe it's practical to deport 12 million illegal immigrants," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Thursday. Romney, though campaigning in Iowa himself, couldn't be troubled to join Tancredo at the endorsement event, and his staff issued a tepid thank-you: "While we don't agree on every issue, we agree on the need to keep America strong."

Understandably, Romney might wish to keep some distance between himself and Tancredo, who boycotted a Spanish-language GOP presidential debate this month, calling it "Univision's Illegal Immigrant Debate." Tancredo instead released a video featuring a scantily clad woman singing in Spanish while other GOP candidates were superimposed riding on a truck with Hispanic farm workers, wearing sombreros and watching a cockfight. Romney was superimposed loitering outside a "carniceria."

It might be tempting to conclude that Tancredo's failure meant that voters had rejected such immigrant-baiting. But in the angry mind of Tancredo, his was a triumphant campaign.

"Hello, everyone! Why so dour?" he chirped as he entered the room for his announcement.

"It's beyond anybody's wildest expectations that we have been able to, with the help of America, really, get our national leaders to pay attention to the issue," declared Candidate Two Percent.

He boasted, with some validity, that his candidacy helped lead "nearly every Republican presidential candidate to commit themselves to an immigration plan that calls for securing our borders." It's true: As his rivals coopted his nativist positions -- even if just rhetorically -- Tancredo became a victim of his own success.

"I am, indeed, pleased as to how this issue has ripened," he continued. "If you think about it, it's enormous the amount of progress we have made -- something, I must admit to you, that stuns even me at this time."

Standing before the TV cameras, in front of a "Team Tancredo" backdrop (made in the U.S.A.!) the former candidate looked about as content as an angry man can get.

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