Immigration Was Hot Topic at New Hampshire Forum

New Hampshire Forum

Photo Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Immigration Was Hot Topic at
New Hampshire Forum
| published August 4, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

There was a rich irony in the fact that Donald Trump—businessman, TV personality, and presidential candidate—skipped a critically-important political forum in New Hampshire on Monday, a sort of pre-debate match-up as 17 Republican candidates joust for position in a 10-person debate to be held in Cleveland, Ohio this week.

Trump, whose untoward and unfiltered comments about immigration and Mexican’s crossing the southern border of the United States triggered liberal outrage while also galvanizing parts of the GOP base around him, dodged Monday’s match-up in New Hampshire, but the brushfire he ignited was burning visibly and furiously through the forum. Immigration was clearly the topic which sparked the most intense exchanges, and exposed what may be the Republican Party’s most looming challenge—finding agreement on the complex and sometimes emotional issue of border control and legal entry into the U.S., without offending Latinos along the way.

Trump decided several days earlier to skip the forum, in part over his anger at comments made by the editors of the Manchester Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, and as it turns out one of the event’s key sponsors. Trump currently leads in most GOP polls, boasting a wide margin over his next closest rivals former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and author and neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.

All told, there are 17 Republicans officially running for the GOP nomination. Based on rules established by some of the major television networks—in conjunction with the Republican National Committee’s guidelines—only ten of those candidates can appear on stage in Cleveland this week when Fox News hosts the first big debate, which is now expected to draw heavy viewership. Fox News will select the ten candidates based solely on last minute polling numbers—surveys being conducted this week—and the network will choose the top ten based on those numbers. Fox News has said it will not reveal its polling methodology, but some sources have said that the news network intends to use a composite of current sampling to make its decision and that the sampling will be completed no later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday, August 4.

CNN will likely use a similar process when it hosts a GOP debate later this summer.

By most analysts’ accounts, Trump will surely be on that stage this week in Cleveland, as will Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Dr. Carson. Trump leads in a recently released Bloomberg poll, the businessman pulling in nearly 21 percent support among likely Republican voters, as compared to 10 percent for Bush and 8% for Walker. Other candidates, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, and former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are feverishly vying for position in the crowded field. For most of the candidates appearing in New Hampshire on Monday, the Granite State forum was their last chance to break out of the lower tier of the pack.

And though New Hampshire is a continent away from the Mexican border, immigration proved to be the flashpoint in many of those discussions and exchanges on Monday. For better or worse, Trump has set the tone for that conversation between Republicans. All the candidates present on Monday stressed that a solution should be found, but it was clear that there were worries that the issue could explode, causing more damage to the GOP and stalling attempts to moderate a position which hurt the party in 2012.

Perry, who pointed out that his home state of Texas shares a long border with Mexico, called the porous line separating the countries “a serious wound” and added, “You want to staunch the flow.”

Bush took the more moderate line, stressing—as he often does—the importance of viewing immigration as an economic issue. Bush and Rubio have each proposed comprehensive immigration reform, though a bill introduced by Rubio in 2013 failed to gain traction in Congress despite some bipartisan support. Bush has co-authored a book on the subject, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution, which is his proposed template for what he hopes will be a top-down restructuring of U.S. immigration policy.

Bush has sought to stay ahead of changes on the immigration issue by preparing a policy paper on the topic, released to the media just this week. Among the talking points: a proposal to create a “rigorous path to earned legal status” for some 11 million people already in the United States. Bush says he would link the issue of technical skills, job training and academic standing to his immigration policy to make sure that the U.S. is attracting skilled, talented workers.

Trump, who skipped the forum in New Hampshire, has made a point at several recent campaign appearances to emphasize what he describes as his popularity with Latinos and other immigrant groups, suggesting that he will be vindicated when Spanish-speaking voters flock to the voting booth to support his candidacy. But a recent poll conducted by NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Telemundo shows just the opposite, revealing that nearly 75% of Latino respondents who were registered voters thought poorly of Trump, and some 55% said his comments on Mexicans and Latinos were “insulting and racist.” Several GOP candidates sought to distance themselves from Trump’s comments during July, and several said that Trump should apologize. Trump, however, dug in his heels and has instead ramped up his language.

Trump has said that as President he would immediately deport some 11 million illegal immigrants, and allow “only the good ones” to re-enter the country legally.

Republicans on the whole are divided on Trump and his presence in the campaign. Though many in the GOP feel a kinship with Trump’s overtly anti-Washington sentiment, many are also fearful that Trump—if nominated—will hijack the Republican brand and take the party to certain defeat against Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton. Recent polls indicate that a substantial percentage of GOP voters hold negative feelings toward Trump. Those negatives with the Republican ranks grew somewhat after Trump and U.S. Senator John McCain traded a series of nasty barbs last month, after Trump suggested that McCain did not deserve “war hero” status for his time spent in a North Vietnamese prison during the Vietnam War.  But some polls show a recent shift back toward Trump among the GOP faithful, indicating mixed feelings toward the often boisterous businessman.

But some top Republican strategists suggest that Trump is a passing fancy and a novelty, and indicate that as the first caucuses and primaries approach, Trump’s popularity will fade. In this view, Trump benefits only as long as the field remains crowded and congested. Once some candidacies fade or get shoved aside by the top tier leaders, support will begin to congeal around the more natural and traditional party favorites—Bush, Walker, Rubio, to name three possibilities.  A few Republican strategists suggest, however, that a reckoning with Trump should come sooner rather than later.  Rick Wilson, a Republican thinker based in Tallahassee, Florida, says that one useful way to marginalize the Trump factor is to confront him early and clearly on his third party intentions, sometimes expressed by Trump in tones ranging from veiled warnings to outright threats.  Wilson suggests hitting Trump with the question of his GOP loyalty while everyone is on that stage in Cleveland.

Some analysts suggest that much could be decided in the debate this week in Cleveland, when Fox News—which generally caters to a more conservative and somewhat more Republican-inclined news narrative—hosts the first full-scale, side-by-side comparison for Republican voters and potential caucus-goers. If Trump survives that first debate with his following intact, it could be a foretaste of a GOP in turmoil between now and next year. If Trump falters, the narrative for Republicans could change dramatically, and the race could evolve along more conventional lines.

In the meantime, political analysts, journalists, and party operatives seem in general agreement that the New Hampshire forum was something of a dud; void of fireworks, void of any muscular debate, demonstrative of little effort by the candidates, some of whom were clearly using the forum as a warm-up to the bigger showdown in Cleveland. The forum's format, in which each candidate works a single mic on stage while the other candidates wait their turn on the front row, seemed awkward at best, even restrictive and overly controlled at worst.

This formula produced no surprises, and may have even subdued the conversation. Senators present cited their Washington resumes, legislative muscle and foreign policy experience, while the governors in the room listed accomplishments ranging from balancing budgets to working with legislators of the other party. Dr. Carson and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina were the only two genuine articles from the anti-politician crowd. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, citing the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal of the 1990s, went as far as to suggest that his ability to interpret the relative truths of the Clinton's was his best asset, hardly the skillset one would prefer from a candidate who entered the race as a foreign policy expert and military strength advocate. Many of the candidates said more should be done to combat the threat of terror.

There were few, if any, direct attacks on each other, a possible side-effect of not having Trump in the room. Later this week in Cleveland, however, Mr. Trump will be present and center stage. A safe bet would be that fireworks will ensue.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Jeb Bush, Out of the Box; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 21, 2015.

Grudge Match: Trump Versus McCain; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 19, 2015.