TIME portfolio

‘The Corridor of Death': Along America’s Second Border

The body lay along a fence line at the edge of a highway. He was a 23-year-old Salvadoran, according to the ID in his wallet, carrying a toothbrush and a picture of a young girl posing in a cap and gown. The man had spent days trudging through the sandy brush of South Texas, stripped to socks and underwear in the heat. When he collapsed and died, someone dragged the corpse toward the road, where it was spotted by a passing cowboy. By the time Brooks County chief sheriff’s deputy Benny Martinez arrived on May 21, the body was bleeding from the eyes.

Collecting the dead is one of the grim rituals of Martinez’s job. The young man from El Salvador was the 24th undocumented immigrant to perish in Brooks County this year. Over the past six years, more than 400 bodies have been discovered in the desolate rural jurisdiction, whose 7,200 people are spread across 943 sq. mi. (2,440 sq km) of cactus and mesquite. “You never get over it,” Martinez says.

The body count makes Brooks County one of the deadliest killing fields in the U.S. border crisis. But it is not actually on the border. The county is a graveyard for migrants because of the three-lane traffic checkpoint, operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, that sits on U.S. 281, 70 miles (115 km) north of Mexico. To circumvent the checkpoint, coyotes drop carloads of undocumented immigrants along the highway a few miles south, where they embark on an arduous hike through private ranchland with plans to rejoin their ride north of the station. For undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. in South Texas, the multiday trek is the most perilous leg of a journey that starts with a payment (often $5,000 to $10,000, according to authorities) to coyotes in their home countries, who stash their clients at squalid border safe houses and shepherd them across the Rio Grande aboard inflatable rafts.

Since 2006, when she became a staff photographer at The Monitor in the border town of McAllen, Tex., Kirsten Luce has been documenting immigration issues on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Now a freelance photographer, Luce made extended reporting trips to Brooks and Kenedy Counties in January and March. She embedded with the U.S. CBP, joining agents in the brush on both day and night patrols as they used footprints and censors to track the migrants during the difficult and dangerous walk around the Brooks County checkpoint.

“I hadn’t spent much time there in years, and it was a piece of the migration story that I wanted to revisit,” Luce says. “These are the places where most deaths occur. Migrants—often tired, thirsty and hungry after a couple nights in stash houses further south in Texas—succumb to heat exhaustion or dehydration while circumventing vehicle checkpoints on foot.”

“It wasn’t until I witnessed the conditions in these houses that I fully realized these migrants were beginning the hike in Brooks or Kenedy County with severely compromised health conditions,” Luce says. “The people who hold migrants in these houses coordinate with other smugglers to lead them around the checkpoints. All are directly or indirectly linked to the drug cartels operating with impunity in Northeast Mexico. In recent years, human smuggling (especially all the way from Central America) has become as profitable as drugs, and it’s harder to prosecute as smugglers often try to blend in with their group and get deported alongside them. The cartels now control all traffic across the Rio Grande and everyone must use a cartel-approved guide. If caught crossing alone, one could be beaten or disappeared.”

Despite all the attention to securing the border itself, often the best chance of intercepting the flow of people and contraband is at checkpoints on key roads leading north. “These interior checkpoints always intrigued me, because each migrant passing undocumented through the Rio Grande Valley essentially crosses two borders,” Luce says. In Brooks County, the enforcement checkpoint has pushed undocumented immigrants onto private ranches, where they are unprepared for the searing heat and arid terrain on what can be a 25-mile (40 km) detour around the patrol stations.

“Some arrange to get dropped off several miles south and spend a night or two hiking north, following a wide arc far from the road,” Luce says. “Others are more brazen, getting dropped off less than a mile from the checkpoint at one of several turn-around lanes off of Highway 281 or 77, the only two direct routes out of the Valley. Typically the migrants have no idea where they are or what they are facing ahead. One once asked me if we were in Houston, some 250 miles away.”

Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer. It’s easy to become disoriented and get lost. Migrants carry little food or water, and those who lag are left behind by their guides. “It’s the corridor of death,” says Eddie Canales, who runs the South Texas Human Rights Center, a few miles from the Falfurrias checkpoint in Brooks County. “There’s no telling how many remains are still out there.”

South Texas has struggled for years with the U.S. immigration crisis, but the problems deepened as migration patterns shifted. Beefed-up border security across former trouble spots in California, Arizona and West Texas prompted smugglers to find new routes through the Rio Grande Valley, while escalating violence in Central American nations spurred a wave of refugees searching for a path to the U.S. Illegal border crossings have dropped in 2015 with the end of the unaccompanied-minor crisis, and deaths in Brooks County are actually down from their peak of 129 in 2012.

But the impact still hits hard in places like Brooks County, which has just five sheriff’s deputies, and neighboring Kenedy County (pop. 400), where another border-patrol checkpoint sits astride U.S. 77. In these poor rural areas, recovering, identifying and burying the dead carries significant costs. Judge Imelda Barrera-Arevalo, the top elected official in Brooks County, estimates that dealing with the humanitarian crisis will consume 15% to 20% of the county’s budget this year. “It’s still our responsibility,” she adds, “whether we like it or not.”

To reduce fatalities, humanitarian groups and some ranchers have installed water stations. The border patrol has positioned rescue beacons on private land so migrants can buzz for help. Agents use ground sensors, cameras and blimps to surveil the sprawl. “I won’t be happy until the death toll is zero,” says Doyle Amidon, the patrol agent in charge of Falfurrias station. “But the nature of this area, and the fact that we are in the perfect location for illegal migrants to pass through here, it’s sort of the perfect storm.”

On one nighttime patrol, Luce joined border patrol agents as they tracked a group of 12 migrants for close to two hours. “There was something exciting about these pursuits. The air was cool and the moon was bright. We were fed and hydrated,” she says. “The migrants, however, had been traveling for days or weeks and were exhausted and dirty. They were as close as they’d ever been to relative freedom. They’d invested an untold fortune for this opportunity, an amount nearly impossible to pay back in their home countries. Their clothes were covered in leaves and stickers, any exposed skin covered in small scrapes from the brush.”

Eventually, they came upon the migrants hiding in a grove of mesquite. Agents surrounded the grove and moved in from all sides, working quickly to handcuff the migrants. Some tried to flee, but most remained perfectly still as they were detained.

“Any momentary thrill I had felt during the pursuit was replaced first by adrenaline and then by a hollow sadness,” Luce says. “The migrants’ resignation, and sometimes fear, is sobering for everyone. The air felt thicker as we hiked out, nearly a mile to the closest road. Everyone had a heavy heart, no one is rejoicing. I think many agents feel that they are rescuing these people from an uncertain fate, which is certainly true. They are doing their part to enforce the nation’s immigration laws, albeit some 80 miles north of the border, on privately owned land.”

Kirsten Luce is a freelance photojournalist based in New York.

Alex Altman is TIME’s Washington Correspondent.

TIME gambling

World Series of Poker Gambles on Luring New Players

World Series of Poker, Poker, Gambling, Jorryt van Hoof
John Locher—AP Jorryt van Hoof places a bet during the final night of the World Series of Poker final table in Las Vegas on Nov. 11, 2014.

This year's tournament is designed to attract more of the recreational players priced out of higher-stakes events

The World Series of Poker is betting that smaller stakes will sweeten the pots this year.

The globe’s biggest annual poker bash begins May 27 in Las Vegas, with the first of 68 individual tournaments that last year paid out more than $227 million in prizes. And while the 46th running of the World Series will still boast its share of big buy-in events—including the $10,000 Main Event World Championship in July and a high-roller event that costs $111,111 to enter—this year’s tournaments are designed to lure some of the recreational players priced out of the larger games.

For the first time in its history, the World Series is running a $565 event for gamblers who don’t want to fork over four figures to get in on the action. The debut of the “Colossus,” which begins Friday and has a $5 million guaranteed prize pool, is part of a strategy to boost participation rates by spreading the wealth.

Unlike last year, there is no $1 million buy-in event on the calendar in this Series. And the 2015 Main Event, which begins July 5, will no longer guarantee $10 million to the big winner. Instead it is designed to pay at least 1,000 entrants, up from last year’s 695. (The tournament is still expected to award some $8 million to the last player standing.) These are among several adjustments, like more starting chips, implemented this year to make the format more friendly to recreational players.

“Now more than ever, the WSOP has something for everyone,” WSOP executive director Ty Stewart said in a statement.

The tweaks also reflect the challenges poker is grappling with in the wake of the Department of Justice’s 2011 crackdown on Internet gaming. By curtailing access to online poker, regulators blocked the surest path for most recreational players to win their way into the Worst Series. The number of entrants in the Main Event has slipped about 25% since its peak in 2006, which took place amid a poker boom fueled by hole-card camera technology and televised coverage on ESPN.

In response, the World Series has diversified its offerings, running lower-stakes regional tournaments around the U.S. and expanding internationally to Europe, Asia and Australia.

But the juiciest action is still at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, where beginning May 27, anyone over 21 with a chip and chair has a chance to make a million.

TIME justice

Why This Red State Is Poised to End the Death Penalty

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts is seen through bars during a tour of the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Tecumseh, Neb., on May 19, 2015.
Nati Harnik—AP Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts is seen through bars during a tour of the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Tecumseh, Neb., on May 19, 2015.

It would be the first conservative state to do so since 1973

As a college student in the mid-1990s, Colby Coash attended an execution at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. Two groups gathered to bear witness. On one side were death-penalty opponents, who prayed quietly. On the other side, the atmosphere was festive.

“It was like a tailgate party,” Coash recalls, replete with a band and barbecue, and locals banging on pots and pans. As the minutes ticked toward midnight and the condemned was strapped into the electric chair, the crowd drank beer and counted down “like it was New Year’s Eve,” says Coash, who supported the death penalty at the time. “Later, it didn’t feel right. I didn’t like how it felt to be a part of the celebration of somebody’s death.”

Coash now serves in Lincoln as a state senator, and on Wednesday he was among a cadre of conservatives who voted to abolish the death penalty in Nebraska. If the measure becomes law, Nebraska would become the first red state to ban capital punishment since North Dakota in 1973.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who supports the death penalty, has threatened to veto the bill. But Wednesday’s 32-15 margin in the Nebraska legislature indicates supporters have the votes to override such a move. Ricketts has five days to sign or veto the measure before it automatically becomes law.

The landmark vote was a reflection of the shifting politics of criminal justice. For decades, law-and-order conservatives have been staunch proponents of capital punishment. But in recent years, a growing number of Republicans have begun to oppose the death penalty, arguing it violates the central tenets of conservatism.

“It does things that are cardinal sins for conservatives,” says Marc Hyden, a former NRA staffer from Georgia who serves as coordinator of a national group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “It risks innocent life. It wastes taxpayer money when there’s cheaper alternatives, and fails to be representative of a limited government—while it meanwhile fails to deter crime.”

Overall, Americans’ support for the death penalty is relatively stable, according to a 2015 Gallup poll that found 63% of respondents favored capital punishment for convicted murderers. But among conservatives, support for the practice appears to be dropping, though it remains high. In 2014, Gallup found that 76% of Republicans supported the death penalty, down from 81% the year before. Says Hyden: “It’s just a broken government program that conservatives are speaking out against in greater numbers nationally.”

Eighteen states have banned the death penalty, mostly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Nebraska might seem an unlikely candidate to join them. The state is a conservative stronghold, and while its unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan, 36 of its 49 seats are held by Republicans.

But the Cornhusker State has been down this road before. In 1979, a bill banning capital punishment passed the legislature before it was vetoed by the governor. Though Nebraska has 11 inmates on death row, no one has been executed in the state since 1997. In 2013 some observers believed there were enough votes to pass such a measure, though not enough to override a veto. The current legislature had voted twice already to abolish the death penalty.

In preparation for the push, opponents of the death penalty lobbied lawmakers extensively, circulating studies that show the practice is ineffective as a deterrent to crime and enlisting the family members of murder victims to testify about how the endless appeals process compounded their grief.

Stacy Anderson, a conservative Christian and former Republican operative who directs a group called Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the unique nature of the state legislature—the only nonpartisan, unicameral legislature in the U.S.—helped break down traditional partisan lines. “It’s a very cordial, small body,” Anderson says. “They engage the issues far beyond the regular political rhetoric.”

Some conservatives originally ducked meetings on the topic, Anderson added. Over time, a number came to change their minds. “They learned how much it cost, the risk of executing innocents, how it didn’t align with pro-life values,” she says.

Death penalty opponents hope Nebraska’s vote will be the beginning of a trend. A push to abolish capital punishment in conservative Montana fell one vote short earlier this year. Anti-death penalty legislation has also been introduced in Kansas.

Before the vote Wednesday, Ricketts released a statement urging lawmakers to listen to their constituents. “No one has traveled the state more than I have in the past 18 months, and everywhere I go there is overwhelming support for keeping the death penalty in Nebraska,” he said, calling a vote to abolish the death penalty a vote to “give our state’s most heinous criminals more lenient sentences. This isn’t rhetoric. This is reality.”

For Coash, that’s precisely the point. “People sent me here to Lincoln to find and root out government waste,” he says. In addition to the expense, he came to believe that the protracted appeals process prevented the families of victims from achieving closure. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” he says. And “I’m a pro-life guy. I couldn’t reconcile my pro-life beliefs regarding the unborn with doing something different with the condemned.”

TIME Immigration

Republican Candidates Dodge Immigration Questions

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks at the Republican Party of Iowa's Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, United States, May 16, 2015.
Jim Young—Reuters Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks at the Republican Party of Iowa's Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, United States, May 16, 2015.

The GOP wanted to talk differently about immigration in 2016. Instead they're trying to avoid talking about it at all

Sitting in a hotel conference room of a Scottsdale, Ariz., resort, Mike Huckabee kibitzed with a few reporters Friday about issues ranging from the Iraq War to the suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

But when the talk turned to whether undocumented immigrants should have a path to U.S. citizenship, the former Arkansas governor clammed up. “Until we have a secure border,” Huckabee demurred, “there isn’t any other discussion for us to be having.”

Huckabee isn’t the only Republican presidential candidate to dodge the topic lately. As the 2016 race ramps up, GOP candidates are increasingly skirting the specifics of immigration policy. It’s a trend that threatens the party’s hopes of reclaiming the White House.

Routed in the battle for Hispanic voters in 2012, the Republican Party promised to speak differently about immigration this time. But the need to repair its relationship with Latinos has collided with its candidates’ need to court the conservative activists who dominate the GOP nominating contest. As a result, many of the party’s presidential hopefuls don’t want to divulge the details of their positions on an issue with major political and policy ramifications.

To discern the differences between the candidates on immigration, TIME distributed a brief survey to declared and likely White House hopefuls. The questions focused on the fate of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., a subject at the heart of the bipartisan debate over comprehensive immigration reform:

  1. Do you support an eventual pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S., and if so, under what conditions?
  1. Do you support an eventual pathway to legal status short of citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S., and if so, under what conditions?
  1. Do you support a separate process to give legal status or citizenship to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors?
  1. Do you support any government benefits, such as in-state college tuition, for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors?

Some likely GOP candidates offered clear and succinct answers. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was a “no” on all four, according to his spokesman. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the architects of the Senate’s bipartisan attempt to overhaul U.S. immigration laws in 2013, stuck by his support for a path to citizenship under detailed conditions. “Citizenship need not be mandatory, but it needs to be an option for those who are qualified,” said Graham spokeswoman Brittany Bramell. Graham also backed a process to give legal status or citizenship—along with government benefits like in-state tuition—to minors brought to the U.S. by their parents.

But the majority of the field offered muddier responses, or declined to answer at all. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was one of several to argue the debate should be postponed until the southern border is secured.

“Any discussion about dealing with who is already here is counterproductive until the border is secure,” Jindal told TIME in a statement issued through his spokesman. “Any attempt to deal with the millions of people who are currently in this country illegally prior to securing the border is illogical, and is nothing more than amnesty.”

Asked about a pathway to legal status for undocumented workers who met certain conditions, Jindal dismissed it as “a hypothetical conversation.” As for legal status or citizenship for those brought to the U.S. as minors, Jindal turned the focus to Obama. “A serious discussion about those individuals is just not possible right now because of the reckless policies of this administration,” he said. “This President has done everything he can to encourage illegal immigration.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose path to the GOP nomination runs through the conservative grassroots, opposes a path to citizenship for the undocumented. But it’s unclear where Cruz, who casts himself as a proponent of immigration reform, stands on the matter of legal status. He did not directly answer questions from TIME at a recent question-and-answer session hosted by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

These evasions reflect the divisiveness of a topic that splits the party’s bigwigs and its base. The fate of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. is such a freighted question among conservative activists in early voting states like Iowa that White House hopefuls are leery of sinking their campaigns with a single slip of the tongue.

Take former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is likely to launch his second campaign for the presidency next month. Many recall the brain freeze Perry suffered in the middle of a 2011 debate as the moment his first bid for the White House went awry. But the face plant capped a free fall set in motion at an earlier debate, when Perry excoriated critics of in-state tuition breaks for undocumented minors. “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own,” Perry argued then, “I don’t think you have a heart.”

Perry takes a different tack now. In response to TIME’s questions, a spokesman for the former Lone Star State governor compiled a summary of his tough record on illegal immigration, including a “border surge” to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants from Central America in 2014, an increase in border-security funding and a mandate for state agencies and contractors to use e-verify, an electronic system designed to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers. “Under Gov. Rick Perry’s leadership, Texas did more to secure the southern border than any state in the nation,” said spokesman Travis Considine.

Perry isn’t the only Republican to recalibrate his approach. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has shifted on immigration more than any other GOP candidate. Once a supporter of a path to citizenship, Walker is now a firm no. “He believes citizenship should be reserved for those who follow the law from the beginning,” spokeswoman AshLee Strong told TIME. Asked if Walker supported an eventual pathway to legal status for those in the U.S. illegally or a separate process for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors, Strong replied: “He believes that following the President’s illegal executive action, the U.S.’s priorities must be repealing the executive action, securing the border, and enforcing the laws on the books while implementing a workable e-verify system.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped craft the 2013 Senate measure, has edged away from his support of a comprehensive reform bill; he now says he would support a path to citizenship only after tough border measures are imposed first. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a fluent Spanish speaker whose wife is from Mexico, is a supporter of immigration reform who has urged the party to rethink its approach on immigration. But while he once spoke favorably about a path to citizenship, he prefers a path to earned legal status.

“Governor Bush believes once immigrants who entered illegally as adults plead guilty and pay the applicable fines or perform community service, they should become eligible to start the process to earn legal status,” spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger told TIME. “Such earned legal status should entail paying taxes, learning English, committing no substantial crimes, and not receiving government benefits. Governor Bush believes this must be accompanied by measures to secure the border and reform America’s broken immigration system to make it economically driven.”

Candidates like Bush and Rubio are trying to navigate the tightrope on a tricky policy issue by taking a position that can win over moderate voters (including the center-right business community, which favors reform) without alienating the GOP base. Their position grew more precarious recently, when likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, vying to maintain the party’s grip on the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, positioned herself as a greater advocate of undocumented workers than anyone in the field.

“We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship,” she said, claiming Republican candidate has consistently supported that policy. “When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that is code for second-class status.”

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller/Scottsdale, Ariz.

TIME Foreign Policy

The Republicans’ Iraq Trap

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during an event at the Metropolitan University in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 28, 2015.
Ricardo Arduengo—AP Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during an event at the Metropolitan University in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 28, 2015.

Jeb Bush still doesn’t know how to talk about Iraq.

The all-but-certain Republican presidential candidate’s strategy for handling his trickiest political inheritance has swung wildly in recent days, earning criticism from both sides of the aisle.

On Saturday the former Florida governor appeared to say he would have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq even if he knew weapons of mass destruction weren’t present. By Tuesday, Bush was backpedaling, claiming he “misheard” the question. And by Wednesday he was punting, arguing against answering “hypothetical” questions about a war that claimed 4,491 U.S. lives.

No candidate this year is haunted by that conflict like Bush, who must weigh political and familial considerations. But he’s not alone in his struggles. In a campaign dominated so far by foreign policy themes, GOP presidential hopefuls are increasingly torn between the need to project toughness and the need to acknowledge what many voters see as the defining error of the last Republican commander-in-chief.

It’s a balancing act driven by the demands of the electorate. Years of surveys show the American public’s rejection of a war launched on faulty intelligence: a 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found 71% of voters thought the war “wasn’t worth it,” compared to just 22% who thought it was. At the same time, the tumult rippling across the Middle East—from the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) to the unrest in war-torn nations like Libya, Syria and Yemen—has rejuvenated the nation’s hawkish impulses. A succession of polls this year suggest most Americans support sending ground troops to fight ISIS.

As a result, GOP candidates have embraced anew a muscular foreign policy that had atrophied for much of the Obama presidency. Promises to calm the chaos of the Middle East have dominated early candidate cattle calls, while tough talk on Iran has taken the place of Obamacare as a stump speech fixture. Even Sen. Rand Paul, who advocates a restrained foreign policy as part of the party’s more isolationist wing, introduced an amendment to significantly boost the defense budget. After announcing his presidential bid in April, the Kentuckian posed in front of a retired aircraft carrier in the port of Charleston to repeat his call. On a recent trip to South Carolina, Sen. Marco Rubio invoked Liam Neeson’s avenging promise from the movie Taken: “We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.”

The bellicosity is one element of a broader strategy that includes also blaming President Obama for the mess in the Middle East and tethering Bush to his older brother. “If we knew then what we know now and I were the president of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone to war,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN. Paul told the Associated Press that Bush’s comments represent “a real problem if he can’t articulate what he would have done differently.”

“Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq,” Sen. Ted Cruz told The Hill.

Rubio went even further in an interview Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Not only would I have not been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it. He said so,” he said.

Turning Iraq into a centerpiece of the campaign is fraught with risk for Republicans, who have wrestled with the demons of a misbegotten war for a decade now. In 2004, the GOP made support for the conflict into a proxy for patriotism and rode the decision to victory in the presidential election. But by 2006, Democrats regained control of Congress amid the persistent casualties and growing sectarian violence sweeping Iraq.

Two years later, Obama’s early opposition to the war helped vault him past Hillary Clinton in their epic primary contest. He then used Sen. John McCain’s outspokenness for the war against him, mocking McCain’s suggestion that there might be an American presence in Iraq for 100 years. In 2012 Obama won re-election while highlighting his commitment to end the war.

But as the stability of Iraq crumbled in the wake of Obama’s troop withdrawal, Republicans sensed they could regain the upper hand. GOP candidates have criticized Obama for not leaving a larger security force in place to support the Iraqi government. Party strategists believe the path to the presidency hinges in part on an ability to disavow George W. Bush’s mistakes while blaming Obama for making the mess much worse.

Recognizing it won’t be easy, some of the party’s presidential contenders are treading lightly. In a speech laying out his foreign policy vision Wednesday, Rubio only briefly alluded to Iraq, implying that Obama’s troop drawdown was too swift and invoking “Afghans worried that America will leave them like we left Iraq.”

The delicate balancing act is sharply different from the strategy employed by the likely Democratic nominee. After years of standing by her vote to authorize the war, Clinton wrote in her 2014 memoir that she “got it wrong. Plain and simple.”

It was a reflection of how the politics of the issue had shifted—and may be shifting still.

TIME Campaign Finance

Meet the Man Who Invented the Super PAC

David Keating of the Center for Competitive Politics testifies during a Senate hearing highlighting abuses in the public financing of campaigns on May 7, 2013, in Albany, N.Y.
Mike Groll—AP David Keating of the Center for Competitive Politics testifies during a Senate hearing highlighting abuses in the public financing of campaigns on May 7, 2013, in Albany, N.Y.

The plaintiff in a landmark campaign finance case wants to loosen regulations even further

The mastermind behind the super PAC has no regrets. “My only regret is the backlash,” David Keating says with a wry smile.

Keating is one of the most influential political activists you’ve never heard of. He was the architect of a federal lawsuit that ended in a landmark 2010 court ruling that reshaped the way elections are run. The case, SpeechNow.org vs. FEC, scrapped annual limits on individual contributions to campaign advocacy groups, ushering in the era of super PACs—political-action committees that can raise unlimited sums as long as they don’t coordinate directly with parties or candidates.

Five years later, campaigns are only beginning to harness the power of Keating’s creation. In the 2016 presidential race, virtually all of the candidates will have companion super PACs, many of which will wield more influence than the campaigns themselves. Candidates have leveraged super PACs to supercharge fundraising, pay for staff salaries and trips to primary states and even assume the duties once reserved for the campaigns themselves, from running TV ads and organizing supporters to direct mail campaigns and digital microtargeting.

Many of these innovations have surprised Keating, a soft-spoken man with a graying beard. But he delights in watching how, year by year, political strategists are using super PACs to refine the mechanics of elections. Using a super PAC specifically to promote a candidate “just never entered my mind,” he says. “But it’s totally obvious when you think about it.”

Not everyone is so sanguine about the impact of his creation. Political critics, campaign-finance watchdogs and even some candidates argue that super PACs have invited an avalanche of outside spending that gives the wealthy outsize influence and makes a mockery of the limits established by the FEC.

“We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all,” Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton said recently. But it’s a sign of the super PAC’s power that Clinton has nonetheless embraced a group of her own. Despite her stated objections, she plans to personally court influential donors, according to the New York Times.

Keating celebrates such changes. A longtime conservative activist, he believes in an unfettered right to political speech, and decries caps on campaign donations as an infringement of First Amendment rights. Now the president of the Center for Competitive Politics, an independent group that works to loosen campaign-finance regulations, he says his mission was “to do for the First Amendment what the NRA did for the Second.”

Keating casts super PACs as a better way for ordinary citizens to organize and exercise their First Amendment rights. “It comes down to speech,” he says. “If you don’t like [others’] speech, start your own group and talk to people.” And he argues a system that allows the super-rich to pump a gusher of cash into elections is a testament to a thriving democracy.

“That’s how we elected all our great presidents,” he told TIME in an interview Tuesday in his office in Alexandria, Va., ticking off leaders from Lincoln to Eisenhower who took office after elections held under looser campaign-finance regulations. “Rich people have always had the ability to spend whatever they want.”

SpeechNow came on the heels of Citizens United, its more-celebrated brethren in the annals of campaign-finance deregulation. “After Citizens, our case became a total slam dunk,” he says. Though lesser known, SpeechNow significantly widened the impact of Citizens, making it the arguably the more important of the two landmark cases. The combination paved the way for an election that has already seen significant evolutions in super PAC usage.

The two most interesting innovations in 2016, Keating says, have been the quartet of interlinked super PACs backing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and the approach taken by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has delayed his campaign launch to stockpile his Right to Rise PAC. The group has effectively supplanted Bush’s campaign-in-waiting as the hub of his political operation. “What Jeb is doing takes a lot of discipline” due to the prohibitions on direct coordination, Keating notes, though says he is confident that Bush’s lawyers have kept him on the right side of the law.

Though a staunch conservative—he was formerly an executive at groups like the National Taxpayers Union and the Club for Growth—Keating appears to admire the political innovations of the super PAC era no matter where they come from. He notes that Correct the Record, a research group originally formed to defend Clinton, has relaunched as a pro-Clinton super PAC that says it is able to coordinate with the likely Democratic nominee because it will restrict itself from paid media campaigns.

“Here is another innovation–a Super PAC that can legally coordinate with a candidate,” he wrote in an email Tuesday evening. “The reason why they can do that is because they will not make any public communications, as defined in the regulations. Mass mailings do not include e-mail.

“Clever,” he concluded.

But maybe not. About an hour later he emailed again. “This … issue is actually pretty complicated,” he noted, “and it’s not clear they can do what they say they want to do. There isn’t enough detail about their plans to determine if what they plan to do is OK or not.”

It seemed a fitting testament to the murkiness of this new campaign-finance landscape that even its creator can’t always be sure what’s legal.

TIME Dr. Benjamin S. Carson

Ben Carson: The GOP’s Accidental Candidate for President

Republican U.S. presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson officially launches his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in Detroit on May 4, 2015.
Rebecca Cook—Reuters Republican U.S. presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson officially launches his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in Detroit on May 4, 2015.

A candidate reluctantly follows the public tug into the presidential ring

“I’m not a politician,” Ben Carson said as he launched his bid for President of the United States. “I don’t want to be a politician.”

Carson’s campaign rollout was laced with such unconventional moments. There was the unusual announcement video. The gospel choir’s cover of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” The doctor’s grave diagnosis of the nation’s maladies. But the strangest part was the candidate’s declaration of disinterest. Candidates often profess ambivalence about seeking the presidency as a way to mask their ambition. It seems reasonable to take Carson at his word.

Running for office, Carson told TIME early last year, “has never been something that I have a desire to do.” In the months since, he’s been repeating this disclaimer to anyone who asks, even as he crept closer and closer to jumping in. “It continues to be something that I don’t want to do,” he told Newsmax last spring. Asked a few weeks back how he’d feel if his campaign failed, Carson told the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Actually, I would say ‘Whew!’, because it’s not something I ever really wanted to do, and the only reason I’d consider it is because there’s so many people across the nation clamoring for me to do it.”

The most striking thing about Carson’s candidacy is the sense that he is an accidental candidate, a man living out someone else’s fantasy. To understand why Carson would try to win a job he never wanted, it helps to trace his transformation from vaunted neurosurgeon to conservative folk hero. Carson became a grassroots icon after denouncing Democratic policies in front of President Obama at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. Here was a gifted black doctor with a remarkable personal story, who preached the conservative gospel of small-government and self-reliance with the fervor of a convert. Fundraising gurus saw green.

A few months after the prayer breakfast, John Philip Sousa IV—the great-grandson of the composer—asked the veteran GOP fundraiser Bruce Eberle to test Carson’s support among conservative donors. The first solicitation for Carson was sent out Aug. 16. It quickly became clear the group had a direct-mail superstar on their hands. During the 2014 cycle, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee netted more than $13.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—more than Ready for Hillary raked in from Clinton supporters. It paid out healthy sums to staffers in the process.

When asked, Carson said that it would be wrong not to listen when supporters clamored for his leadership. Though he had inspired a movement, it was never clear if Carson himself was prisoner or participant in the effort. “His life changed after that prayer breakfast. He sensed it immediately. But he was in denial,” explains Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business manager. “He had to know that this was what the American people wanted. . . . The seed had been planted. All he needed was for everyday people to water it.”

There was another hurdle. Candy Carson, the candidate’s wife, was opposed to a campaign, Williams says, and it was only during a trip to Israel last December that she heard the cries of supporters and finally got on board. “That was the epiphany,” Williams says. By February, Carson was all but in.

If he’s still wary of winning, his long-shot status should put him at ease. Carson is running a distant eighth in a competitive 2016 race, according to a recent RealClearPolitics average of early polls. The GOP has never picked a nominee with no governing or military experience. And Carson’s record of incendiary rhetoric could thwart the crossover appeal his supporters claim.

Every four years, a handful of people harness the spotlight of a presidential campaign to pursue goals unrelated to elected office. They want to goose book sales or a promote TV program or grab a Cabinet post. But Carson, Williams says, is running purely for love of country.

“He’s not running to sell books. He’s not running for notoriety, or to be someone’s vice president,” Williams says. “There’s no loss for him. No mater what the outcome is.”

Read next: Dr. Ben Carson: Baltimore Rioting Is ‘Truly Senseless’

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME

Cruz Walks a Careful Line on Immigration Reform

Ted Cruz
Cliff Owen—AP Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas gestures while he talks at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), on April 29, 2015, at the National Press Club in Washington.

The GOP presidential hopeful opposes a path to citizenship, but casts himself as a supporter of legal immigration

Texas Senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz cast himself as a supporter of immigration reform on Wednesday, while criticizing Democrats for killing prospects of a bipartisan deal by insisting on a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“I consider myself a proponent of immigration reform,” Cruz said during a question-and-answer session in Washington hosted by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “There is no stronger advocate of legal immigration in the U.S. Senate than I am.”

Cruz was an outspoken detractor of the bipartisan rewrite of U.S. immigration laws that passed the Senate in 2013, which in the eyes of many Republicans would have shored up the party’s moribund support among Hispanic voters. His comments offer a telling glimpse of how he will attempt to find a delicate balance on a pivotal issue during his campaign.

The GOP presidential hopeful opposes citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but he stressed Wednesday the need to celebrate and encourage legal immigration. And he noted his support for dramatically increasing the available number of high-tech visas. His remarks drew an implicit contrast with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a likely rival for the GOP nomination, who recently took a protectionist stance on legal immigration levels.

Cruz declined to directly answer a question from TIME about whether he would support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., indicating a legislative fix should first focus on shoring up border security.

The freshman Senator said he believed there was significant bipartisan agreement around securing the borders and streamlining the legal immigration system. He criticized Democrats for crippling the recent reform plan in Congress by insisting on the “poison pill” of citizenship.

“They are treating immigration as a political cudgel,” Cruz said, “where they want to use it to scare the Hispanic community. And their objective is to have the Hispanic community vote monolithically Democrat.”

Many Republicans argued Mitt Romney’s hardline position on immigration was largely to blame for his dismal performance with Latino voters in the 2012 presidential race. But Cruz said his view—born out by his Senate campaign’s internal polling—was that Romney had alienated Hispanics with a message that appeared to denigrate middle-class Americans while venerating the wealthy.

Cruz argued that Republicans could win over Hispanics with a message of economic opportunity, saying Republicans “should be the party of the 47%.”

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com