MIAMI (AP) – With a single phrase of compassion for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, Jeb Bush has prompted questions about his viability as a potential presidential contender and underscored how divisive the immigration issue remains for the Republican Party.
The former Florida governor sparked a conservative furor this week when he described illegal immigration in an interview as an "act of love" by people trying to provide for their families.
Backing Bush are some of the GOP's most powerful insiders and financiers, who are hoping the party can woo Hispanic voters and rebound from Mitt Romney's damaging "self-deportation" rhetoric in 2012.
"The worst thing that can happen to a political party is not for voters to decide they don't like you," said Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant and former Romney adviser. "It's for voters to decide you don't like them. And that's where the Republican Party is right now."
Other GOP lawmakers and conservative activists, however, are cringing over Bush's remarks, which triggered vocal opposition and concerns about "amnesty."
"We appreciate the compassion in the statement, but the best compassion you can show a people is to uphold justice," said Tamara Scott, a Republican National committeewoman and prominent Christian conservative from Iowa.
Some in the Republican establishment are concerned immigration could define the coming nominating contest in the way it did the last one. Like Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was jeered when he implied that his rivals were heartless if they opposed a law that lets some children of immigrants here illegally to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.
Romney took a hard line on immigration. He ultimately won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, the lowest portion for a Republican in 16 years.
The Republican National Committee has urged the GOP to embrace an immigration overhaul, but comprehensive legislation remains stalled in Congress. Action is unlikely in an election year with high stakes. Republicans expect to hold the House and need to gain only six Senate seats to win majority control from Democrats. While party leaders want to avoid an immigration fight that could alienate their core voters, some establishment Republicans say the delay threatens the long-term future of the GOP.
"It's going to kill the Republican Party," said Al Hoffman, a Republican megadonor who chaired George W. Bush's presidential campaigns.
He and others argue the GOP needs a nominee with a "Nixon-goes-to-China mentality" in which the party leader takes an audacious, if not popular, step on issues such as immigration. They suggest that's necessary in part to peel away some Hispanic voters from Democrats in 2016.
For Bush, the debate is personal. His wife, Columba, was born in Mexico and grew up there. The two met while Bush was an exchange student there; she is now an American citizen.
On Sunday, in an interview with Fox News before an audience at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas, Jeb Bush said immigrants who enter the country illegally should, in fact, pay a penalty. But he added that he viewed such a violation as "a different kind of crime."
"Yes, they broke the law, but it's not a felony," he said. "It's an act of love."
On Thursday, speaking to the Connecticut Republican Party's annual Prescott Bush Awards dinner, named after Bush's late grandfather, he defended his remarks.
"The simple fact is, there is no conflict between enforcing our laws, believing in the rule of law and having some sensitivity to the immigrant experience, which is part of who we are as a country," Bush said. "It's not an American value to allow people to stay in the shadows."
Hispanics are a crucial voting bloc in an increasing number of swing-voting states, from Florida to Colorado to Nevada.
Some see a new opportunity for the GOP to appeal to Latinos, many of whom have soured on President Barack Obama because of his administration's record-setting number of deportations.
"Hispanics are eager to hear from a leader in the Republican Party talk about immigration in the way that Jeb Bush talked about it," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the country's largest Hispanic civil rights organization.
In contrast to the 2012 nomination fight, most of the potential 2016 presidential contenders have signaled support for some kind of immigration overhaul. But they remain divided over whether legislation should offer a pathway to citizenship for those living here illegally. After the Senate passed a bipartisan measure last year that would do just that, the barrage of conservative criticism virtually silenced the GOP's most outspoken immigration advocates, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
The furor over Bush's remarks shows the potential perils of picking up the issue, especially in the early voting states that play an outsized role in choosing party nominees.
Bush, the two-term, Spanish-speaking former governor of a state with a booming Hispanic population, has struggled to articulate his views in a party that has changed dramatically since the last time he ran for office in 2002.