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GOP candidates head to Iowa to dig deeper hole with Hispanics

Are you a Republican presidential candidate looking to meet and greet some Iowa voters this weekend while also alienating the Hispanics you’ll need to get to the White House if you’re fortunate enough to win your party’s nomination? Then you’d better get yourself to the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines, an event organized by Rep. Steve King, perhaps the most vehemently anti-immigrant member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

You might think that given Mitt Romney’s disastrous showing among Hispanics in 2012 (after “self-deportation,” he ended up winning only 27 percent of their votes), and the sense among some Republicans that it will be harder to win the White House without making inroads with this fast-growing part of the electorate, candidates would be skittish about palling around with King.

This is, after all, a man who has compared immigrants to dogs and said of the undocumented, “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that — they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” King once went to the House floor to show off a model of an electrified fence he designed to keep immigrants away from our southern border, noting that the current “would not kill somebody, but it would simply be a discouragement for them to be fooling around with it. We do that with livestock all the time.” After learning that Michelle Obama would be sitting at Tuesday’s State of the Union with Ana Zamora, a 20-year-old college student who came to America at the age of one and can stay because of Obama’s executive action on “dreamers,” King tweeted:

#Obama perverts ‘prosecutorial discretion’ by inviting a deportable to sit in place of honor at#SOTU w/1st Lady. I should sit with Alito.

But apparently, the fact that Steve King is from Iowa represents just too enticing a draw for the presidential candidates. Among those who will be attending this weekend’s confab are Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — that’s eight presidential candidates. Other Republican luminaries who will also be there include Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Donald Trump. Should be quite a party.

I’m guessing that the candidates are hoping it’s too early in the process for something like this to have any effect on their eventual efforts to court Hispanic voters. Who’s paying attention now, anyway? The problem is that this kind of pandering isn’t something you just do a couple of times and then put behind you.

The other day, Benjy Sarlin of MSNBC reported that Rick Santorum’s strategy for 2016 “puts less stock in bashing gay marriage and more in bashing immigration.” Santorum may be a long-shot candidate, but he could be right that given the evolution of the last four years, many Republican voters have resigned themselves to the eventual triumph of marriage equality. Immigration, on the other hand, still gets them mad. So it will probably keep coming up on the campaign trail, particularly in those early states where you have to go house to house, with lots of uncontrolled moments, in order to make your case.

Democrats and their “trackers,” video cameras in hand, will be watching it all. They’ll be assembling files and video montages of every candidate pledging to turn back the immigrant tide. Even if the candidates are careful not to say anything too inflammatory this weekend, they’re still going to be asked later about why they went to kiss the ring of a guy like Steve King.

So here’s a crazy idea. What if one of those eight candidates got up at this event and said, “Representative King, I appreciate you inviting me here, but I’m going to have to be honest and tell you that you and people who think like you do are killing this party that we all love. There are some things we can agree on, like the need for a more secure border. But every time we rain contempt down on immigrants, we push away millions of voters that we ought to be reaching out to instead. If we’re ever going to win back the White House, that has to change.”

Would that lose the candidate some votes? You bet. But it would also be an earthquake. The media (who will be at the Freedom Summit in force) would go crazy — there’s nothing they love more than a “maverick” who’s willing to start fights within his or her party. The candidate who said it would lead the news and be on the front page of a hundred newspapers the next day. It would be worth tens of millions of dollars in publicity.

But of course, that won’t happen. Instead, the candidates are all going to praise Steve King, pledge to get tough on illegal immigration, and keep digging themselves deeper into a hole that they’ll have an awfully hard time climbing out of when the general election arrives.