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This week, the race for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination rapidly escalated. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney held a “gentlemanly” meeting to compare notes on the race. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker planned a trip to New Hampshire and hired a top Iowa strategist. Florida senator Marco Rubio began taking concrete steps toward a run of his own. And the party confirmed that it’s still grappling with its most glaring political problem: immigration reform.

Over the weekend, several of the party’s top presidential contenders — Walker, Texas senator Ted Cruz, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former Texas governor Rick Perry, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — will attend the Iowa Freedom Summit, hosted by hardline anti-immigrant congressman Steve King (R-IA). King is a living avatar of the GOP’s problems with immigration: He has almost singlehandedly made the party’s official policy as punitive as possible, while missing no opportunity to publicly disparage the immigrant community. In addition to his infamous claim that “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 [DREAM Act beneficiaries] out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King has insisted that Hispanics come from “a violent civilization” and compared them to dogs, livestock, and the Visigoths who sacked Rome.

In other words, he is not the type of figure with whom Republicans who want to beat Mitt Romney’s dismal 27 percent share of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election should want to share a stage. But that isn’t stopping those Republicans who hope that King’s support can deliver them the 2016 Iowa caucus.

And the potential candidates who aren’t appearing at King’s summit have immigration problems of their own. Bush has spent time on both sides of the debate, and currently seems to be trying to avoid the issue altogether. Rubio flip-flopped on immigration in the clunkiest way possible when he turned against his own comprehensive reform bill (and his refusal to criticize King for describing a DREAMer at the State of the Union address as a “deportable” gives a good indication of how he’d deal with the issue on the campaign trail). Romney’s infamous “self-deportation” plan may not even have been his most damaging position on immigration reform.

The party’s problems don’t stop there. While all of the GOP contenders (with the exception of Bush) will start the campaign from the far right on immigration — opposing comprehensive reform that includes path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and vowing to overturn President Obama’s executive order shielding some immigrants from deportation — the Republican-controlled Congress seems dedicated to pulling them even further away from the mainstream. Next week the House is planning to vote on what Republicans call “the toughest border security bill ever.” King and his allies quickly denounced it as too weak.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the appropriately named Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (R-AL) announced on Thursday that he will chair the Senate committee on Immigration and the National Interest. Given Sessions’ outspoken criticism of both illegal and legal immigration, it seems likely that the Senate’s days of debating comprehensive reform are finished. And as the congressional debate on immigration shifts further and further to the right, the presidential campaign will surely follow suit.

This represents a huge dilemma for the GOP. Since Romney was blown out in 2012, most Republicans have understood that they need a more forward-thinking immigration policy to compete in future elections. But because of the outsized influence that the extreme right wing of the party holds, the GOP has instead only hardened its opposition to any policy that doesn’t center around deporting as many undocumented immigrants as possible.

But the American public has not followed the GOP to the right. As this chart from the pro-reform National Immigration Forum demonstrates, polls have consistently shown that Americans strongly support the outline of the 2013 Senate bill, which Democrats still endorse. Republicans’ maximum deportation plan is a minority position.

In 2012, this issue helped bury the Republican Party. If the GOP’s 2016 nominee winds up to the right of Romney’s position, as seems increasingly likely, the issue will hamstring Republicans again. And as Hispanic voters continue to increase their share of the electorate over time, the GOP’s immigration problem will only get worse.

If any Republican has a serious solution, now would be a good time to share it.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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