WASHINGTON — No one would have expected a Republican from Fort Myers to jump into the battle over illegal immigration in Arizona. Yet there was U.S. Rep. Connie Mack blasting "frontier justice" and comparing the state's new law to Nazi Germany.
"This is not the America I grew up in and believe in," he said on April 29. As the words hit the Drudge Report, criticism washed in from across the country. Mack was called weak, a Democrat.
"The easy thing," he said in an interview Wednesday, "would have been to do nothing. That's precisely why I think it's important for people who are elected to take a stand."
But for others in Florida, taking a stand has been a struggle.
In a state where Hispanic voters account for more than 12 percent of the electorate, Arizona's new law — which requires police to check the papers of anyone they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally — has leading Republican candidates in contortions.
The politicians straddle a tight line of acting tough for their traditional base while acknowledging the complexity of the issue in a state with a long and mostly harmonious history with immigrants.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, initially expressed concerns that the Arizona law could have unintended consequences and "could also unreasonably single out people who are here legally, including many American citizens."
"That's not really something that Americans are comfortable with, the notion of a police state,'' Rubio said when asked about law enforcement officers demanding to see the papers of immigrants.
But after lawmakers amended the law to clarify when officers could investigate the legal status of people, Rubio sounded like he now supported it.
"The second one that passed hit the right note. Yes,'' he said.
Then in a subsequent Spanish language TV interview, Rubio declined to answer yes or no about whether he supported Arizona's law, instead repeating that it should be handled federally. (That's the approach his friend David Rivera, the leading GOP candidate for an open U.S. House seat in Miami, has taken.)
"I don't support states taking this into their own hands," Rubio said. "I think this needs to be dealt with at the federal level. What I support is the change they made to the law, because that improved the law."
One change seeks to address racial profiling concerns by requiring a review of only those who police stop or detain or arrest, rather than those police merely suspect of being illegal immigrants. Another change bars officers from "solely" using race as grounds for suspecting someone is here illegally.
Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Bill McCollum has shifted repeatedly, first declaring, "I don't think Florida should enact laws like this quite that far out.''
GOP rival Rick Scott started criticizing McCollum's position, and the attorney general responded by praising revisions to the Arizona law: "I support Arizona's law as amended, and if the federal government fails to secure our borders and solve the problem of illegal immigration, I would support a similar law for Florida," he said in a May 14 statement.
The following day, he told the Associated Press that Florida does not need such a law because it doesn't have a border problem like Arizona's.
Scott has made the Arizona immigration law a central issue in his campaign against McCollum for the GOP nomination.
"Arizona is tackling the problem of illegal immigration. But Bill McCollum rejects the Arizona approach,'' says a Scott TV ad featuring a recording of McCollum dismissing the need for such a law in Florida.
"McCollum — he's got it wrong. Rick Scott backs Arizona's law. He'll bring it to Florida and let our police check if the people they arrest are here legally. That's common sense."
Short term, it's good politics as well.
Nearly six in 10 Florida voters — three quarters of all Republicans — said they supported such a law in Florida, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
But mirroring national polls, it showed Hispanic voters overwhelmingly opposed such a law and that could pose a long-term problem for the GOP.
Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic group in Florida and America, and a crucial political target. Once a Republican-leaning slice of the Florida electorate, Hispanics have been steadily moving toward Democrats, particularly at the height of immigration reform debate when many Republicans pushed for hard-line crackdowns.
Since the 2008 election, only 18 percent of Hispanic voter registrations in Florida were Republican, compared to 37 percent Democrat and 44 percent independent.
If Republicans can't reverse the trend, they could be headed for perpetual minority status.
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Mack says there was no political calculation behind his strong reaction, noting the 14th Congressional District is predominantly white and Republican.
He agrees with a need to secure the borders and blames federal inaction for the state action in Arizona.
"The problem I have is not what it does to illegal immigrants, but what it does to Americans who may not look like me but who are Americans."
Mack, 42, is the top Republican on the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and his toughest words are usually reserved for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. His national profile, if he has one, owes to the fact that his father, Connie Mack III is a former senator, and that he is married to the widow of Sonny Bono, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif.
But Mack said he decided to speak out about the Arizona law because he saw it as an affront to freedom.
"I believe deeply in the idea of freedom, freedom for all Americans," he said. "If you're going to say that the health care bill is destroying freedoms, then the idea that police officers in Arizona can use race as an objective to determine someone's status means Americans' freedoms are being trampled on."
He has taken contrary positions before, such as opposing the reauthorization of the Patriot Act under President George W. Bush.
Mack said he has not kept up with how Rubio, McCollum and others are handling the issue, but generally said, "A lot of people are concerned about the fallout of taking a position."
The fallout for Mack has been a torrent of angry messages and calls, from constituents and people across the country who read his statement on Drudge and other Internet sites.
"I will NEVER VOTE for you again," a Naples man wrote in an e-mail. "In my opinion, you are a horse's ass."
There are words of encouragement, too.
"I would like to congratulate you on having the courage to speak against the new immigration law in Arizona," a constituent wrote. "I am appalled and saddened by the hateful tone present in America today."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.