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Jeb Bush, Rubio lay low on border crisis

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The potential presidential candidates have been criticized by conservatives over immigration
  • Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, moderates on immigration, keeping a low profile in border crisis
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another relative moderate on the issue, has been more aggressive

(CNN) -- Three Republicans with lofty aspirations nearly had their political careers derailed over risky positions on immigration.

But the crisis on the southern border involving an influx of nearly 60,000 migrant children this year from Central America may help Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry repair a broken trust on immigration with conservatives.

All three are positioning themselves in a way that could help them make peace.

Gov. Perry: Secure that border, Obama
Breaking through the immigration rhetoric

Perry, as governor of Texas, is out in front publicly since his state is directly affected, while Rubio, a Florida senator, and Bush, a former Florida governor, have been relatively quiet.

And Republican strategist Ana Navarro said that's OK.

"I don't think you have to play a leading role on every issue," she said.

Rubio took a risk

Both Rubio and Bush have been leaders on immigration in the past.

Rubio took a risk last year by taking a leadership role in crafting a comprehensive reform bill that passed the Senate but crashed and burned in the House.

Conservatives attacked him for supporting "amnesty," their opinion of providing a path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

Rubio then distanced himself from the Senate package that he helped broker in favor of a piecemeal approach backed by some House Republicans that also has gone nowhere.

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Bush: a compassionate tone

Bush offered a compassionate tone to the immigration debate before the border crisis made headlines.

In April, he said many immigrants come to the United States illegally as "an act of love" and "an act of commitment to your family."

He admitted that he might be stepping on a land mine before he made the statement. "But the way I look at this, and I'm going to say this, and it'll be on tape and so be it."

Now avoiding risk

Bush, whose immigration stance is at odds with many in his party, has avoided risk by not addressing the southern border issue until now.

In a statement to CNN, Bush placed the onus on President Barack Obama to address the situation but also said the minor immigrants, many of them who crossed the border unaccompanied, should be sent home.

That's in line with many Republicans, especially conservatives, as well as the stated position of the White House. How that is accomplished most effectively, however, is a sticking point at the moment.

"It is clear we have a humanitarian crisis on our border. Governor Bush believes President Obama must step up and show leadership. These children must be returned to their home countries," his spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said.

Bush then pushed for an immigration overhaul.

"Ultimately, we must overhaul this nation's broken immigration system to prevent situations like this in the future," Campbell said.

Bush has been active in the political arena, however, recently endorsing and campaigning with Senate candidate Scott Brown, a Republican running in the first presidential primary state of New Hampshire.

Immigrants or refugees? A different with political consequences

Quiet, but not skirting the issue

As Congress is tasked with coming up with a solution to the border crisis. Rubio has mostly taken a back seat. That's a different tactic than he took during immigration reform, where he was a leader in crafting the Senate bill.

The Florida senator has put out 80 press releases since the beginning of June. But not one has addressed the border situation. But the son of Cuban immigrants hasn't completely skirted the issue, either.

In an interview with a Fox affiliate in Orlando this month, Rubio said the children must be treated with compassion, but like Bush and the White House believe "they will have to return."

Rubio also said he's opposed to Obama's $3.7 billion emergency funding request to Congress that includes money to care for immigrant kids while they await legal proceedings to determine whether they can stay in the country.

Rubio said money needs to be spent on "permanent border security measures." He also told conservative talk show host Ed Morrissey that the current immigration crisis should be "a catalyst" for securing the border.

Perry's approach

Perry's 2012 presidential run nosedived in part after he said in a GOP debate that people who don't support giving children of undocumented immigrants in-state college tuition don't "have a heart."

Perry has been far more aggressive than Rubio and Bush with his state Ground Zero in the migrant crisis.

Republicans have followed his lead. He confronted the White House and made his points directly to Obama in a meeting this month.

Perry also has checked the "secure border" box.

"If you have a patient who is bleeding profusely, the first thing you have to do is stop the bleeding, and that's the reason we have been so adamant about securing the border," Perry said recently on CBS News' "Face the Nation."

Although he supported a secure border before, his laser-like focus on the issue during the current crisis, despite the numerous other factors that are involved, has endeared him to reform skeptics.

The lay of the land

While the three have adopted different strategies and their professional roles are different, they are positioning themselves in a way that may appease many Republican voters.

While more Republicans than Democrats support border security as a solution, the conservative position has become even firmer since the border crisis began.

According to a Gallup poll this week, 17% of Americans think immigration is the most important issue facing the country right now. And Pew poll found that most Americans think the children involved should be deported.

In addition, Pew found fewer Republicans supported a path to citizenship -- 64%- in February compared to 54% now. And among the more conservative part of the Republican base, only 41% now support a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, compared to 56% five months ago.

The witch's brew: Desperation, hope and children on the border

Not in my backyard: Communities protest surge of immigrant kids

Unintended consequences: 2008 anti-trafficking law contributes to border crisis

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