TIME Scott Walker

Why Scott Walker’s Immigration Flip-Flop Could Hurt

Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a meeting with area Republicans on April 19, 2015, in Derry, N.H.
Jim Cole—AP Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a meeting with area Republicans on April 19, 2015, in Derry, N.H.

It sets him apart from primary rivals and party elites

In the early stages of a presidential campaign, the controversy du jour is often less important than it may seem. This is the season of listening tours and message testing, when the real drama is offstage and a trip to Chipotle can command the national news cycle.

But the brewing kerfuffle over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s new immigration position is a case where there’s more to the matter than meets the eye. His shift on the issue this week could alter the GOP primary, both by setting him apart from key rivals on a critical issue and by reinforcing questions about whether the Wisconsin governor has a habit of revising his policy positions for political gain.

“The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages,” Walker said Monday during an interview with Glenn Beck. “It is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today—what is this doing, not only to American workers looking for jobs, but what is it doing to the wages, and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.”

Walker’s remarks — which also name-checked GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions, an outspoken opponent of immigration reform — were a departure from many of his past comments on the issue. By raising questions about legal immigration levels, he appeared to espouse a protectionist approach that positions him to the right of much of the GOP primary field.

“Sad to see the full, Olympics-quality flip-flop by a former boss today,” tweeted Liz Mair, who quit her job as a political aide to Walker amid a controversy over her prior criticism of Iowa’s prominent role in the presidential nominating contest.

The shift in policy separates the Badger State Republican from top primary opponents on one of the party’s most dramatic fault lines. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have supported an overhaul of U.S. immigration law. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has decried the idea of mass deportations and supported work visas and a legal status for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.

“Governor Walker supports American workers’ wages and the U.S. economy and thinks both should be considered when crafting a policy for legal immigration,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Our American Revival, an organization formed to support Walker’s presidential bid. “He strongly supports legal immigration, and like many Americans, believes that our economic situation should be considered instead of arbitrary caps on the amount of immigrants that can enter.”

Walker’s position hasn’t gone over well with some of the party’s top strategists, who believe a more inclusive approach to immigration is both sound policy and smart politics. Nor does it wash with some of the GOP’s most influential donors and thinkers, a group that can alter the trajectory of the presidential primary.

A vast cross-section of business organizations, special-interest groups and Republican bigwigs favor immigration reform — from industrialists who need cheap farm labor to Silicon Valley tech firms that are lobbying to loosen restrictions on H1B visas. Walker’s stance could inhibit his ability to attract the big money he needs behind his campaign. The billionaire Koch brothers, for example, have seeded an organization, known as the Libre Initiative, whose goal is to pitch conservative principles to the Latino voters who overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. “Any call, by anyone, to further restrict legal immigration is not a viable, nor an acceptable policy remedy,” Daniel Garza, the executive director of the Libre Initiative, said Tuesday.

“The overwhelming majority of Americans, Democrats as well as Republicans, want the federal government to secure our borders,” says former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who has worked to drum up support for an immigration overhaul that make undocumented workers who meet various conditions eligible to apply for green cards. “That same majority understands that we need to increase the number of H1B visas, that there are essential jobs for which we need immigrants, particularly agriculture … we need guest workers in those essential jobs.”

But from a short-term perspective, Walker’s shift may be shrewd politics. He is tapping into a deep vein of populism that runs through the party, especially in early voting states like Iowa, where antipathy toward “amnesty” is an animating value. A January Gallup poll revealed that 60% of Americans are dissatisfied with current immigration levels, including 84% of Republicans.

One veteran GOP strategist said simply that Walker “has got to perform well in Iowa” and that he wouldn’t do so with the more centrist approach he’s taken in the past.

In 2006, when Walker served as Milwaukee County executive, he urged the Senate to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill. In 2010, when controversial legislation in Arizona became a national flashpoint, Walker criticized the bill. (Just days later, he reversed his position after further researching the issue, according to his then-campaign manager.) In 2013, as Senate leaders worked to craft a bipartisan rewrite of U.S. immigration law, Walker supported a path to citizenship. Asked the same year if he could envision citizenship for immigrants after penalties, waiting periods and other conditions were put in place, Walker told the Wausau Daily Herald: “Sure. Yeah. I think it makes sense.”

And now? “My view has changed,” Walker told Fox News on March 1, opposing a path to citizenship in any form.

Every politician, like every constituent, has a right to change his or her mind. But a windblown approach to policy could shatter the steadfast image Walker earned in the Wisconsin union brawl, and which he hoped to leverage as a cornerstone of his all-but-certain presidential campaign. “It shreds your argument if you say you’re going to be the principled guy,” says the GOP strategist, “but here are all these examples of where he flipped.”

The examples are mounting. There was Walker’s reversal on ethanol subsides, another Iowa hot-button which he backed this spring after formerly opposing. There was his push to repeal Common Core when it became politically toxic in 2014, after previously supporting the standards. There was his decision to sign a right-to-work law after years of disavowing interest in pursuing such a policy.

Walker started well in the Republican nominating contest this year, riding a wave of momentum generated by a strong performance in an early Iowa cattle call. But he is a newcomer to the national stage. Many Republican voters have yet to form their first impression of the Wisconsin governor. Getting tagged with a flip-flopper label could prove an impassable obstacle.

“You do not want to be in a position where you build up a track record of moving around on issues,” says another veteran Republican consultant. “It’s absolutely fatal.”

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

TIME 2016 Election

Influential GOP Group Backs Cruz, Paul and Rubio

U.S. Senator Rubio announces bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during speech in Miami
Joe Skipper–Reuters U.S. Senator Marco Rubio announces his bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during a speech in Miami, Fla. on April 13, 2015.

Conservative outside groups could be poised to play a kingmaker role in the 2016 nominating contest

The first three candidates to enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination earned rave reviews Thursday from a powerful conservative group.

The Club for Growth, a deep-pocketed network of economic conservatives, published detailed analyses of the voting records of Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio that heaped praise on each of the candidates.

“Cruz, Paul, and Rubio are the real deal,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh. “We’ve looked at their records and their rhetoric, and they give us hope for the future of the GOP on fiscal policies.”

The verdicts weren’t a surprise. The Club backed each of the candidates in their campaigns for the Senate, and all three have amassed staunchly conservative voting records during their short stints on Capitol Hill. But the rave reviews were a reminder that conservative interest groups are poised to play a kingmaker role in the 2016 nominating contest, pulling candidates to the right in the process.

The Club has long been known for spending large sums to oppose candidates who stray on economic issues. But it is considering a more aggressive role in this year’s GOP primary, including a possible endorsement. In late February the group drew a range of presidential hopefuls — including Cruz, Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — to address a donors’ conclave in Florida.

The group found quibbles with each of the first three candidates, from Cruz and Paul’s support of special tax credits for NASCAR to Rubio’s proposed top marginal tax rate. But overall, it spared little praise for the Senators. “Cruz has shown extraordinary determination in the fight against Obamacare,” McIntosh said. “Paul’s budget proposals are a blueprint for limited government, and Rubio has drafted a massively pro-growth tax cut and reform plan.”

It’s a far cry from the 2012 presidential race, when the group was lukewarm or worse on candidates ranging from Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty to Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum. And there will surely be 2016 candidates who don’t fare as well. (Keep an eye out for a withering assessment of Mike Huckabee.) But the first batch of reviews was a early sign that this cycle’s crop of candidates will produce a far more competitive — and potentially just as conservative — race after the yawner of four years ago.

TIME Marco Rubio

Why Marco Rubio’s Presidential Bid Makes Republicans Nervous

U.S. Senator Rubio announces bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during speech in Miami
Joe Skipper–Reuters U.S. Senator Marco Rubio announces his bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during a speech in Miami, Fla. on April 13, 2015.

It throws a costly, competitive Senate race up for grabs

When he announced his campaign for President on Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio noted that not everyone in his party was thrilled about the idea. “I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn,” the Florida Republican told supporters gathered at Miami’s Freedom Tower.

Rubio wasn’t just alluding to critics who question his decision to run for the White House while still in his first term in the Senate. He was also talking about some of his allies on Capitol Hill, who were tracking his deliberations for an entirely different reason.

The freshman Senator, 43, is also up for re-election in 2016. And when he jumped into the race for the White House, Rubio reaffirmed his decision not to defend his Senate seat. “If you’ve decided that you want to serve this country as its president, that’s what you should be running for,” he explained to NPR in the wake of his campaign launch.

Rubio’s decision to ditch the Senate puts the GOP in a bit of a bind. Republicans recaptured the chamber last fall, but in 2016 they will be defending 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10. With a shaky majority and an unforgiving electoral map this go-round, the GOP was counting on Rubio — a proven fundraiser with name recognition and some cross-party appeal — to win re-election in one of the nation’s few true swing states.

Instead Republicans now seem destined for a contested primary and competitive general election that will force them to spend extravagantly to keep the seat. “It’s a problem,” says a former senior official with the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). “The challenge that Rubio presents is that there’s a $20 million hole that was just blown in the NRSC budget.”

To skirt this problem, some Republicans quietly sought to persuade Rubio to stay in the Senate, arguing he faced an uphill contest against former Gov. Jeb Bush, a fellow Floridian who has been soaking up the support and largesse of the party’s most powerful donors. If strategists in Washington fretted about shelling out millions to protect the seat, some GOP operatives and donors in the Sunshine State were shocked Rubio would run against Bush, who remains a dominant figure in the state and whom Rubio has described as a mentor.

“There’s a lot of angst about him running” for President, says one veteran Republican consultant, who believes Rubio’s bid for the Oval Office is a long shot. “He would’ve held onto the [Senate] seat. He’s a terrific fundraiser, and it probably wouldn’t have been as competitive.”

Republicans have a deep bench in Florida. “Florida Republicans have consistently demonstrated a proven capacity to win statewide races and we look forward to electing another strong Republican like Senator Rubio,” says Kevin McLaughlin, deputy executive director of the NRSC. But the GOP Senate campaign arm may struggle to recruit a candidate of comparable strength. Already two top potential candidates, state chief financial officer Jeff Atwater and former state House speaker Will Weatherford, have passed on the race.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy has announced a run for the Democratic nomination. In the absence of Rubio, the race could be one of the nation’s toughest. Last month the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling surveyed hypothetical match-ups between eight leading prospective contenders from both parties; on average, the Democrat led by less than one point. Rubio, in contrast, was running well ahead of top Democratic rivals.

That’s why some Republicans are holding out hope that he reconsiders his decision if his presidential run fails to gather steam. As Rubio has noted, Florida election law bars a candidate from running for two offices on the same ballot. But the filing deadline to jump into the Senate race isn’t until May 2016, leaving plenty of time to test the waters in Iowa and New Hampshire. It would hardly be an unusual strategy. Fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul is running for re-election in Kentucky as he mounts a bid for the White House after lobbying the state party to change its election laws to allow him to do both.

But Rubio has always been a man in a hurry, and as he’s confessed to allies, the Senate’s sclerosis has frustrated him. This dissatisfaction with the job helps explain why he’s ready to relinquish it for a shot at the presidency. And some longtime Florida political hands argue Rubio’s stock in the GOP primary is undervalued.

“There were a lot of Republicans who were shocked, at times even indignant, that Marco would step out of line,” says Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist who served as a top adviser to both of Barack Obama’s Florida campaigns. “I’m in the camp that thinks he’s going to do better than most people have been saying.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers and Zeke J. Miller

TIME Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio Waits for His Moment

Slow and steady wins the race, he hopes

When Marco Rubio launched his presidential campaign Monday evening in Miami, it’s a safe bet the speech made a lot of Republicans remember why they dubbed him presidential material.

Nobody in the GOP can spin a yarn like the freshman Senator from Florida. Rubio’s bootstrap narrative, rhetorical flourishes and emphasis on American exceptionalism have made him one of the few national figures capable of bridging the chasms between the party’s grassroots base, billionaire donors and the Washington establishment.

These gifts were on display in Rubio’s announcement speech, which framed the 2016 presidential election as a clash between leaders “stuck in the 2oth century” and those looking toward the future.

“Yesterday is over, and we are never going back” he told supporters. “We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them.”

The question is whether now is Rubio’s time. For much of the past two years, it hasn’t looked that way.

Rubio, 43, was a conservative sensation in 2013 when he joined a bipartisan group of Senators to craft a rewrite of U.S. immigration laws. (TIME put him on the cover, anointing him “The Republican Savior.”) Rubio became the face of the GOP effort to rebrand itself with Hispanics in the wake of an election in which they got clobbered in the contest for the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, winning just 27% of the Latino vote.

The gamble backfired. Comprehensive immigration reform collapsed amid a revolt from conservatives, who were incensed by a deal they decried as “amnesty.” And Rubio, whose upset Senate victory in 2010 was driven by Tea Party activists, was left to labor offstage as his presidential rivals vacuumed up money and hype.

His comeback strategy was simple. Rubio adopted an intentionally low profile as he repaired his relationship with the party base. In Washington he focused his efforts on foreign policy, returning to his roots as one of the Senate’s pre-eminent hawks. And he quietly wooed bigwig donors in small meetings and private conferences, nurturing a small yet loyal cadre of backers.

Rubio’s plunge into the 2016 pool will make a splash. But don’t be surprised if he soon returns to the low-profile approach on the campaign trail. There will be visits to early states and countless meetings with donors, but Rubio doesn’t expect to rocket to the front of the primary pack anytime soon. A protégé of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Rubio can’t match the fundraising prowess of the son and brother of Presidents. (His jab at Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton Monday as “a leader from yesterday” appeared to be a shot at Bush as well.) Nor can he squash Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s surge in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Instead Rubio’s path to the party’s nomination relies on running a lean, upbeat campaign that blooms late, advisers say. At this stage, being a lot of voters’ second choice can be a first-rate strategy. The campaign hopes the base never warms to Bush, its romance with Walker proves fleeting and the social-conservative vote is divvied up between the various candidates vying for it. Then Rubio’s lean campaign operation will expand rapidly, and he can capitalize on his personal magnetism through the platform provided by the presidential debates. Rubio aides point to the roller-coaster GOP primary in 2012 as evidence that strategy can work.

Rubio has never lost an election, and his gifts as a candidate are easy to spot. In a race dominated by scuffed dynasties, he offers optimism and freshness: a youthful face who can connect with new constituencies by speaking Spanish, talking football and quoting rappers. In a party of aging white guys, a 43-year-old Hispanic who hails from a top swing state carries certain benefits.

The son of Cuban refugees will lean heavily on his biography. Rubio’s mother made a living as a hotel maid; his dad worked as a bartender. Their son called the journey from serving drinks in the back of the room to announcing a presidential campaign at the front of one “the essence of the American dream.”

His announcement at Miami’s Freedom Tower, the so-called Ellis Island for thousands of Cuban refugees — “a symbol of our nation’s identity as a land of opportunity,” Rubio said — highlights the role that his personal narrative will play in his pitch. And Rubio’s campaign will rely on his charisma: polls show his approval ratings among the highest in the party.

This strategy is a proven winner at the presidential level, but perhaps not in a way that Rubio’s backers are eager to point out. As a freshman Senator with a minority background, a compelling personal story and dazzling oratorical chops, Rubio is the closest thing in the Republican Party to Barack Obama. At this time in 2007, Obama was an underdog, polling well behind the Clinton juggernaut. His victory illustrates the viability of Rubio’s strategy.

At the same time, the GOP has spent the past seven years decrying Obama as a nice guy with a light résumé who proved to be out of his depth in the Oval Office. The challenge for Rubio will be to bottle Obama’s campaign magic without reminding them too much of the man he’s seeking to succeed.

TIME Rand Paul

A Changed Rand Paul Vows to Change the Republican Party

A Tea Party favorite must play to the GOP base before he can expand the electorate

Sen. Rand Paul announced a run for the White House Tuesday, armed with a message he said was “loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our country back.”

Paul’s speech nodded at his younger fans, as well as making a pitch as a presidential candidate for limited government and fiscal conservatism. A campaign video released Monday had set up the Kentucky Senator as the one man who can “defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream.” The words linger atop a silhouette of the candidate as supporters chant “President Paul.”

Forgive Paul for going generic with his slogan; there are only so many active verbs and available bromides left in our shared campaign storage unit. But the choice is emblematic of a larger branding decision that could help shape the fate of his presidential bid. Paul rose through the ranks by promising to change the Republican Party, but on the cusp of his campaign he has tweaked his own positions to fit within the GOP.

Ever since his 2013 filibuster against Barack Obama’s drone policy vaulted him from Tea Party curiosity to the forefront of the GOP, Paul has boasted a clearer rationale for a presidential bid than any of his rivals. He has been telling audiences that a party staring down the barrel of demographic change must become bigger, broader and more inclusive to win back the White House. His campaign is predicated on the promise that he can attract a younger, more diverse coalition of voters through issues ranging from a more restrained foreign policy to criminal-justice reforms to reining in domestic spying.

The pitch has made Paul a powerful player in the GOP presidential field. He is running at or near the top of the polls, with a stocked bank account and a political network wired through key early states. Instead of downplaying expectations, Paul prefers to stoke the hype. “Nobody is running better against Hillary Clinton than myself,” he told Fox News.

“The path to the nomination is virtually set up for us,” says Doug Wead, a friend and adviser to Paul who notes the senator’s organizational strength and ideological appeal in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. “It’s within the realm of possibility that we could have three sequential wins” out of the gate.

But even as he claims frontrunner status, there’s a question of whether the Kentucky senator has missed his ideological moment. Paul’s rise in the polls over the past two years came as the Republican Party warmed to the merits of Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy after more than a decade of war. In one June 2014 survey, 53% of Republicans said the U.S. should “mind its own business” abroad, up from just 22% in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yet in recent months, as the U.S. ramped up nuclear negotiations that would ease sanctions on Iran and the Islamic State released a series of ghastly beheading videos, the GOP has rediscovered its hawkish impulses. A Quinnipiac poll last month found that 73% of Republicans now support sending ground troops to battle ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Paul has reacted to the Republican regression on foreign policy with an apparent evolution of his own. Lately he’s shelved his signature non-interventionism in favor of more conventionally muscular rhetoric. When it comes to federal spending, he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, “for me, the priority is always national defense.” A few weeks later, he introduced an amendment calling for a $190 billion boost to the defense budget—a head-snapping reversal from his 2011 proposal to cut defense spending and reduce war funding from $159 billion to zero.

Paul supporters say the shift is a function of changing conditions in the Middle East, not a strategic repositioning. (His campaign spokesman did not return a request for comment for this story.) In any event, it may do little to assuage GOP hawks, who remain deeply leery of Paul. Meanwhile, it may may complicate matters on another front. To win the primary contest, Paul has to pull off a delicate balancing act: expand his political coalition without alienating the demanding libertarian supporters inherited from his father. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign was derided by the political class as more farce than force, but to fans he was a beacon of clarity. His son risks irking the libertarian faithful by softening his stances to suit the political climate.

Foreign policy isn’t the only realm where Paul has modulated his message. He has long argued the federal government should let states decide the question of gay marriage. “The Republican Party,” he told CNN, “can have people on both sides of the issue.” Now he is telling socially conservative audiences that gay marriage is a “moral crisis” which “offends myself and a lot of other people.”

This kind of talk may help Paul with Evangelicals in Iowa. But it won’t win over the young voters or independents he often brags about bringing into the GOP fold. Nor is there much proof that the bridge-building he’s done with communities of color will translate into votes. And on issues where Paul’s positions once stood out, such as criminal-justice reform or drug policy, some of his Republican competitors have since caught up.

What’s left if Paul sands down his edges? Perhaps a relatively conventional Republican candidate. Paul’s campaign calls him “a different kind of Republican,” but the issues he emphasizes in his debut video are standard GOP fare, from term limits to a balanced budget to jabs at Congress and the failures of liberalism. His political operation is a vast and motley assemblage, with top staffers who worked for the likes of Rick Santorum and George W. Bush. A man who made his name inveighing against foreign misadventures will campaign in South Carolina this week atop a World War II-era aircraft carrier, a totem of American military might. He is running against Washington from a perch in the Senate, using testimonials from D.C. talking heads to argue he is different.

Paul has undertaken the ambitious project of selling a hidebound party on the merits of reinvention. And if it may seem to some as though he has reinvented himself in the process, supporters say the occasional shift in tone is just part of the larger deal.

“The overriding goal for Rand Paul is to make government smaller,” says David Adams, his former Senate campaign manager. “Anything that needs to be tweaked or massaged or polished to get from here to there is fair game. He will come under a lot of criticism for saying things that sound different from what he may have said at another time, but he has consistently and persistently moved toward making government smaller and winning the ultimate battle.”

Read next: What Happened When Rand Paul First Got Into Politics

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TIME Mike Pence

Indiana’s Mike Pence Takes Blows, Burnishes Credentials In Religious Freedom Fight

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during a press conference at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis on March 31, 2015.
Aaron P. Bernstein—Getty Images Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during a press conference at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis on March 31, 2015.

Becoming a liberal pariah can be good politics for a conservative

There are few immutable rules in politics. But here’s one: anytime you call a televised press conference to explain that you “abhor discrimination,” something’s gone awry.

Such was the plight of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who was dragged into the searing glare of the national spotlight Tuesday to defend a new state law that critics say will invite discrimination. That 37-minute gauntlet followed another televised grilling in which Pence dodged hypothetical questions about whether a wedding florist could deny service to gay couples. The controversy over Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) enveloped the Hoosier State this week, sparking a massive outcry from businesses, activists and ordinary citizens.

But in gauging the damage inflicted on Pence, it’s worth recalling another of politics’ Newtonian laws: in partisan warfare, taking enemy fire for a cherished cause always mobilizes your own troops. For a conservative like Pence, becoming a liberal pariah is pretty good politics.

In other words, for a governor with half an eye on national office, there are worse moves than planting yourself at the center of a national controversy. Just ask Scott Walker, who vaulted from obscurity to the top of the early presidential pack primarily by picking a bruising fight with Wisconsin’s unions. Pence may have underestimated the blowback he’d get from signing the so-called religious-freedom statute. But the skirmish could help more than hurt in the long run.

In the near term, the battle of Indiana has raised the national profile of a first-term governor whom many Republicans have long dubbed a dark horse contender in the 2016 race. Pence has yet to spring from the starting gate: he hasn’t hired staff, built a fundraising apparatus or made the early trips to primary states that are reliable signs of presidential ambitions. But on paper, he is the kind of candidate capable of catching fire.

“Mike has a unique ability to rally people from all different sectors of the conservative movement,” says his former chief of staff Marc Short, who is now president of Freedom Partners, the political fund for the billionaire Koch brothers. “Mike models servant-leadership better than any politician or public official I know.”

Pence, 55, has described himself as a “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” This week’s legislative fight showcased the Christian part. But over six terms in the House of Representatives, Pence also built up glittering conservative credentials as he battled the Bush Administration on policies ranging from the bank bailout to No Child Left Behind to Medicare Part D. He left a coveted spot as chair of the GOP Republican Conference for the statehouse in Indianapolis, a perfect perch from which to mount a national campaign.

Pence is more likely than not to pass up a campaign. For one thing, Walker and perhaps Ohio Gov. John Kasich have already occupied the Midwestern governor’s lane on the road to the nomination. But after months off the national radar tending to the legislative session in Indiana, the RFRA fight “puts Pence right back in the center of the storm,” says a longtime party strategist. If he survives the tempest, he could steer himself into contention as a champion of an issue that is particularly dear to voters in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. “Pence right now has the opportunity to win the Republican nomination by standing firm,” argues Mike Farris, a conservative lawyer who helped draft the federal RFRA in 1993.

At the same time, a dramatic confrontation on a divisive social issue was hardly the best way to introduce himself to the mainstream voters Pence would need to mount a credible campaign. “Does it help him? I doubt it,” says one top Republican strategist who believes Pence’s team bungled the issue. “If the primary voters think you aren’t skilled enough to beat Hillary, you’re going to be in a bad spot whether you have a good [voting] scorecard or not.”

With reporting by Sam Frizell and Zeke J. Miller

TIME States

Arkansas Governor Asks for Changes to Controversial Religious Freedom Bill

His own son signed a petition against it

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called Wednesday for the state legislature to make changes to a religious freedom bill that prompted an angry outcry from prominent businesses and activists who say it could lead to discrimination against gays.

“I’ve asked the leaders of the General Assembly to recall the bill so that it can be amended,” Hutchinson, a Republican, announced in a news conference Wednesday morning.

Hutchinson had promised last week to sign the bill into law when it reached his desk, and on Tuesday the Arkansas state House affixed its final approval to the measure. But as a backlash over a similar bill built against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Hutchinson reconsidered his decision.

MORE: Uproar Over Religious Freedom Law Trips Up Indiana Governor

Noting that his own son signed a petition urging a veto, Hutchinson urged the Arkansas state legislature to tweak the language of the statute to make it mirror the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law with bipartisan support by then-President Clinton.

“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial. But these are not ordinary times,” Hutchinson said.

Pressure had mounted on Hutchinson to reject the legislation, as powerful corporations publicly exhorted the Republican governor to reverse his decision. On Tuesday evening, the Arkansas-based retail giant Walmart posted a statement on Twitter arguing the bill undermined the state’s “spirit of inclusion” and asking Hutchinson to veto it.

“My responsibility is to speak out on my own convictions,” Hutchinson said, “and to do what I can, as governor, to make sure this bill reflects the values of the people of Arkansas, protects those of religious conscience. But also, minimizes the chance of discrimination in the workplace.”

TIME 2016 Election

Indiana Religious-Freedom Law Emerges as 2016 Republican Litmus Test

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence holds a news conference at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on March 26, 2015.
Michael Conroy–AP Indiana Gov. Mike Pence holds a news conference at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on March 26, 2015.

GOP presidential hopefuls race to the defense of Indiana Governor Mike Pence

The deepening controversy over Indiana’s new religious-freedom law became a litmus test for the 2016 GOP primary field on Monday, as a host of presidential hopefuls leaped to the defense of embattled Hoosier State Governor Mike Pence for signing the statute.

Likely Republican candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum — as well as newly declared candidate Ted Cruz — each defended Pence for supporting Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has drawn sharp criticism from civic and business leaders across the country and reignited a debate within the GOP about how the party should handle divisive social issues.

The Republican contenders who weighed in sided with Pence, who party strategists say could still emerge as a White House contender himself. The cascade of support was a clear sign of the importance of the issue for the party’s social conservatives, who have increasingly rallied behind the cause as voters and the courts moved to legalize same-sex marriage in states around the country.

In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt Monday evening, Bush said he believes Pence “has done the right thing.”

“I think if they actually got briefed on the law, they wouldn’t be blasting this law,” Bush, the former governor of Florida, said of the law’s critics. “Florida has a law like this. Bill Clinton signed a law like this at the federal level. This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs. To be able to be people of conscience. I think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

Bush said the law is designed to provide protections for people who have religious objections on all issues, including a Washington State case where a florist is being sued for refusing to service a same-sex wedding.

Rubio, a Florida Senator who is expected to announce his candidacy for President in Miami on April 13, said the statute was designed to codify religious protections rather than invite discrimination.

“I think the fundamental question in some of these laws is, Should someone be discriminated against because of their religious views?” Rubio said Monday on Fox News. “No one is saying here that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or a hotel because of their sexual orientation.”

Cruz, whose candidacy rests on appealing to the GOP’s evangelical base, praised Pence for standing up to critics of the law. “Indiana is giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties,” he said in a statement. “I’m proud to stand with Mike, and I urge Americans to do the same.”

The controversy surrounding the bill, which Pence signed last week, came to a head over the weekend as Democrats, civic leaders and an array of large businesses — including Indiana companies like Angie’s List and Eli Lilly, as well as powerful tech firms like Apple, Salesforce and Yelp — condemned Pence for signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Critics contend the law would enable discrimination, particularly against LGBT Americans.

Nineteen other U.S. states have enacted versions of the law, which are similar to a federal version that passed Congress with bipartisan support in 1993 and was signed by then President Bill Clinton.

In an op-ed published Monday evening in the Wall Street Journal, Pence argued the law has been “grossly misconstrued” by critics. “If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn’t eat there anymore,” he wrote. “As governor of Indiana, if I were presented a bill that legalized discrimination against any person or group, I would veto it. Indiana’s new law contains no reference to sexual orientation. It simply mirrors federal law that President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.”

Santorum tweeted his support of Pence, pledging to address it in a scheduled speech at George Washington University. Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a popular figure among the GOP’s Tea Party wing, also expressed support for the statute.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took a different tack from his likely GOP primary rivals by declining to immediately back Pence for supporting the legislation. Walker was noncommittal on the law on Monday, saying he doesn’t see a version of the bill making it to his desk in Wisconsin and declining to say whether he would sign it.

“As a matter of principle, Governor Walker believes in broad religious freedom and the right for Americans to exercise their religion and act on their conscience,” said AshLee Strong, press secretary for Walker’s Our American Revival.

Democratic National Committee press secretary Holly Shulman blasted Bush, Rubio and Walker in a statement. “This just confirms what we already know about these three Republican presidential hopefuls, and is the most recent reminder that Republicans are focused on one thing — pursuing an out-of-touch agenda at the expense of everything and everyone else,” she said.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the Indiana law on Twitter last week. But RFRA laws have previously been widely supported by top Democrats, from Clinton’s husband to then Illinois state senator Barack Obama.

TIME justice

Will Congress Reform the Criminal Justice System?

Civil rights activist Van Jones speaks onstage at '#YesWeCode: From The 'Hood To Silicon Valley' during the 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center in Austin on March 16, 2015.
Robert A Tobiansky–Getty Images Civil rights activist Van Jones speaks onstage at '#YesWeCode: From The 'Hood To Silicon Valley' during the 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center in Austin on March 16, 2015.

There's bipartisan backing, but that doesn't mean a bill will pass

Correction appended, March 27

Van Jones likes to call his Republican buddies “brother.” As in Brother Mark (Holden, the general counsel at Koch Industries), or Brother Matt (Kibbe, the CEO of the conservative group FreedomWorks). Jones, a Democratic activist and former Obama adviser, beamed as he strolled the halls of a cavernous Washington hotel Thursday, clasping shoulders and squeezing hands with one unlikely conservative ally after the next. And Jones wasn’t the only one basking in the warm vibes of bipartisanship.

If you mistakenly wandered into the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, you might have thought you had fallen into an alternate universe. Scores of liberal and conservative activists, policy wonks and lawmakers gathered for an all-day conference that seemed to defy all the old saws about Washington gridlock. Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich lauded Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who volleyed back praise for his Republican partners. Even Attorney General Eric Holder drew warm applause in a ballroom dotted with conservatives.

But as unusual as that may be in Washington, it’s becoming a routine sight when it comes to criminal justice reform. In recent months, a growing bipartisan alliance has formed around the need to change a prison system that critics say is broken and bloated. Thursday’s crowd was the clearest sign yet of the coalition’s breadth. “When you have an idea whose time has come,” said Jones, one of the hosts of the summit, “it winds up being an unstoppable force.”

Maybe. But it’s never easy in Washington to channel a cause into actual change. A show of force is not a strategy. Despite general agreement about the problems riddling the justice system, it remains unclear how a collection of interest groups with divergent ideologies can marshal their money and organizing muscle to move bills through a fractious Congress—all before the 2016 presidential election puts the legislative process on pause.

The good news is the array of powerful figures who have united behind the idea. Activists and policy groups on the left (such as the Center for American Progress and the American Civil Liberties Union) are working with traditional foes on the right (such as the Kochs, the American Conservative Union and Right on Crime) as well as nonpartisan groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums. In Congress, the cadre of lawmakers who have teamed up on criminal-justice reform legislation run the ideological gamut, from Democratic Senators Booker, Pat Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse to Republicans counterparts Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Rob Portman and John Cornyn.

The unlikely alliances have formed in part because the problem is so obvious. The percentage of incarcerated Americans has ballooned 500% over the past three decades; the nation’s prison population, at 2.2 million people, surpasses that of any other developed nation. The one-in-three Americans with a criminal record struggle to reintegrate into society because of restrictions on housing, voting and employment—which in turn promotes recidivism. Liberals deplore a system that disproportionately punishes minorities and the poor for petty crimes, while many conservatives have long been appalled by the moral and fiscal issues associated with the soaring U.S. incarceration rate.

Whether the legislative branch has the ability to tackle these sprawling issues remains an open question. “The way Congress moves is at a glacial pace,” said Booker, a freshman Senator from New Jersey. “This is not going to change unless we push and fight and work together.”

A big part of the battle is figuring out the best place to start. In the Senate, one option is a bill sponsored by Whitehouse and Cornyn, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, which is designed to reduce recidivism and help nonviolent prisoners transition back into society after serving time. An earlier version of the bill sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2014 with the support of Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who now serves as the committee’s chairman. As chairman, Grassley’s support for the legislation is crucial. His reticence to reforming mandatory minimum sentencing is one reason why the Cornyn-Whitehouse bill is thought to have a better chance of success than a popular mandatory-minimum bill sponsored by Booker, Paul and others.

Grassley’s counterpart in the House, Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, is another Republican steeped in the tough-on-crime ethos that long reigned in the party. But the House GOP has a host of respected leaders who are on board with criminal justice reforms, from Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan to fellow Wisconsin conservative Jim Sensenbrenner, who advocates identify as a key player in any deal to get a bill through the House.

Gingrich, a co-host of Thursday’s summit, said the key would be to gather support in the Senate first. “If you build a big enough bipartisan majority in the Senate, it’s going to pass,” said Gingrich, who argued that as a cause, criminal justice had little in common with comprehensive immigration-reform, another recent bipartisan issue with plenty of hype and heavy hitters behind it, but which ultimately stalled in Congress.

Unlike immigration reform, “there’s no massive opposition to rethinking how we’ve been incarcerating people,” Gingrich argued, predicting that each 2016 Republican presidential contender would support some form of justice reform. “There’s a much, much bigger consensus.”

There’s also an urgency to capitalize before presidential politics grinds the legislative machinery of the capital to a halt. On a panel Thursday morning, Democratic commentator Donna Brazile predicted a comprehensive criminal justice bill could pass by the end of the year. “I think we’ve got to get it done in 2015,” said Kibbe of the Tea Party-aligned group FreedomWorks, “before we get back in our corners and start fighting again.”

Correction: The original version of this story identified Families Against Mandatory Minimums as a left-leaning group. It is nonpartisan.

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