TIME ted cruz

Cruz Tries to Prove a Conservative Can Win

Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, right, greets an attendee after speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" legislative luncheon in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 18, 2015.
Bloomberg via Getty Images Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, right, greets an attendee after speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" legislative luncheon in Washington, D.C., on June 18, 2015

The Texan pitches himself as a true believer with the money to win

Friday night in rural northwest Iowa is as picturesque as American politics gets. Half the town of Pierson is sprawled across the outfield grass of a Little League ballpark, eating pork sandwiches and cupcakes as a country band plays atop a flatbed crowded with hay bales. As the sun begins to dip into the surrounding cornfields, Ted Cruz climbs onto the stage to make his pitch for the presidency.

The centerpiece of Cruz’s stump speech these days is a denunciation of what the Texas Republican calls the “Washington cartel.” This is the Senator’s term for the alliance of powerful interests and pliable politicians who, he says, conspire to control the country at the expense of the people. K Street lobbyists are a big part of Cruz’s cartel. So are big corporations, career politicians, the liberal media and the leaders of both parties. The newest members are the apostates on the Supreme Court, whose back-to-back rulings on Obamacare and same-sex marriage Cruz condemned at each stop on his most recent two-day swing through Iowa.

Cruz is known as a bomb thrower, and his most trip to Iowa illustrated why. He ripped rivals for the 2016 nomination for feigning outrage while privately “popping champagne” at the court’s ruling. “They stand for nothing!” he spat. He whacked party leaders for supporting illegal “amnesty.” He called for a constitutional amendment that would force Supreme Court Justices to stand in elections. He even slammed Chief Justice John Roberts, a longtime friend from conservative legal circles.

“You’re not calling balls and strikes,” Cruz tells TIME, invoking the umpire metaphor that Roberts deployed at his confirmation hearings to describe the role of a Justice. “You’ve joined a team.”

The important thing to understand about Cruz is that nothing he says is by accident. For all his florid rhetoric, he is as disciplined a speaker as any in the presidential field. His stump speech — delivered without notes or teleprompters — is carefully honed, with the same canned jokes at each stop, the same pauses for emphasis, the same cadences and delivery. The conservative crowds in this heavily evangelical swath of Iowa eagerly gobbled the red meat Cruz tossed, including jabs at “liberal intolerance” and warnings of the coming “vicious assault on religious liberty.”

But in some ways the crucial part of the routine is a more subtle argument, one aimed at voters around the country who remain skeptical that a candidate like Cruz has a real shot at winning the presidency. This, he explains, is a lie perpetrated by the cartel.

“The game of the Washington cartel,” Cruz tells crowds, “is to convince conservatives you can’t win.”

To prove otherwise, Cruz points to money. “We launched the campaign on March 23,” Cruz tells about 60 people in a drab community center in Sheldon, Iowa, on Friday. “We set a goal of raising $1 million in a week. Frankly, I thought that was a pretty audacious goal.” He paused for emphasis. “We raised $1m in one day.”

By the end of the week, Cruz adds, his campaign had raked in more than $4 million — “more money than any Republican [campaign] has raised in the opening week in modern history.” Including Establishment types like Mitt Romney and John McCain.

Candidates rarely get into granular fundraising details on the stump. But these stats are not just a point of pride (or a product of insecurity). They are central to Cruz’s case that a true conservative can harness grassroots energy to beat the cartel. The cartel is supposed to control the party’s purse strings, Cruz says — and yet here he is, a Tea Partyer despised by the GOP establishment, raking in serious dollars.

Cruz has collected more than $40 million since announcing his campaign, with most of that coming from a constellation of super PACs backing his bid. That’s far less than a “cartel” candidate like Jeb Bush, who is soon expected to report raising in the neighborhood of $100 million so far. But it’s enough to put him snugly in the next tier, along with candidates like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, on upcoming fundraising reports.

More importantly, the tally underlines Cruz’s ability to compete financially, which most movement conservatives cannot. “We’ve not seen a grassroots conservative with serious fundraising ability since 1980,” Cruz told a small group of voters in the Dutch Bakery in Orange City, whose specialty almond patties retail for $1.50. Cruz’s stump speech builds to this argument: that he is the rare true believer with the fundraising firepower to withstand a long and grueling primary. The campaign’s actions bear out this strategy. Cruz has trekked to places like Massachusetts and staffed up in states like Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina. He is trying to build a national infrastructure that can capitalize on early momentum.

An early consequence of this long view is that Cruz has spent less time in Iowa so far than expected. He has just a skeleton staff here, led by conservative activist and former pastor Bryan English. Cruz is actually polling lower by some measures in the first-in-the-nation Hawkeye State, an evangelical stronghold well suited to his style, than he is nationwide.

Cruz promises crowds that he’ll be spending “a lot of time in the great state of Iowa.” In Orange City on Friday, he gamely submitted to the retail ritual the caucuses require. He toured a store filled with Dutch-style wooden shoes, glad-handed retirees and knelt to take photos with children. “He stands up and fights,” says retiree Patricia Boonstra, after taking a picture with Cruz on her iPad. On Saturday, the candidate delivered a sermon-style speech, titled “Believe Again,” on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines.

Steve King, the conservative congressman who represents northwest Iowa, tells TIME that Cruz has the chops to win the caucuses. “He’s a natural-born, full-spectrum conservative,” King says. “The voters are starting to follow him.”

Cruz has an uphill climb to win the nomination. He’s polling around 6% nationally over the past month, behind not only Bush, Walker and Rubio but also former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and fellow freshman Senator Rand Paul, who is hoping to build on his father’s robust network in Iowa and elsewhere. It’s not only the Washington cartel that dislikes Cruz. Many of the party’s moderate voters are put off by his slashing style.

But the Texan draws optimism from the success of two candidates who were also written off in the early going. One is Barack Obama, who toppled Hillary Clinton in 2008 with a guerrilla campaign Cruz speaks of with awe. (Cruz admired Obama’s battle plan so much he bought staffers a copy of the now President’s campaign manager David Plouffe’s memoir.) The other is Ronald Reagan. “I think 2016,” he says, “is going to be an election like 1980.”

TIME john kasich

John Kasich Tells TIME: The Republican Party Is My Vehicle, Not My Master

GOP 2016 New Hampshire
Jim Cole—AP Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, speaks at the Republican Leadership Summit in Nashua, N.H. on April 18, 2015.

Yet another entrant in the presidential race tells TIME that he plans to run as his own man

Ohio Governor John Kasich turned heads in political circles earlier this month when he announced the hiring of a pair of GOP operatives with checkered histories to run his presidential campaign.

John Weaver and Fred Davis were the strategists behind former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman’s ill-fated 2012 campaign for the presidency. Before that, they worked for Sen. John McCain. But to those who know Kasich, their hiring made perfect sense—he’s planning to run a similarly unconventional campaign for the White House. “Here’s the thing you have to realize, the Republican Party is my vehicle, and not my master,” he tells TIME.

Casting himself as a “change agent,” Kasich has overseen an economic revival in Ohio, and won re-election in the swing state by a 31% margin over a weak Democratic opponent. It was a sharp reversal from 2011—his first year in office—when Kasich’s poll numbers plummeted amid a failed effort to curtail the power of state public sector unions in an effort to control the state budget.

Kasich unsuccessfully ran for the White House in 2000, where he was edged out by another Bush’s well-funded campaign. “The issue was money-M-O-N-E-Y,” he told the New York Observer in 2001. Kasich now says he was too young that time around, pointing to support he is receiving from those who backed Bush over him in 2000.

He endorsed George W. Bush, calling him “a soul brother” for his support of compassionate conservatism, a theme at the center of Kasich’s campaigns. “I think that it’s important for the GOP, must most important for me to be able to talk about the kindness of conservatism,” Kasich says.

To that end, he defends expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, despite vigorous opposition from Republicans. “I’ve never thought anything about it. It was the right thing to do,” he says. “We’re helping the drug addicted, the working poor, the mentally ill. I didn’t see it as standing up to my party really, I just saw it as carrying out something that I thought was important for my state.”

A former investment banker, he has no regrets about his time at Lehman Brothers, but says he supports capital requirements for large banks. Kasich tells TIME he opposes increasing taxes, but that he will not sign any pledges to that effect.

TIME caught up last week with Kasich in Utah, where he was attending the E2 Summit organized by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Here is a transcript of the interview.

TIME: You’re having fun out there.

Kasich: Most of the time, it’s fun. I get tired once in a while, and that’s not ever fun to be tired, but you know, I’m enjoying it.

TIME: You did this in 2000 running against another Bush.

Kasich: It was a different time. I was just a young man, and you know, people said, look we like you and come back another day.

TIME: But you also lamented at the time running against Bush money. You’re set to do that again against Jeb’s $100 million.

Kasich: Our goal, if I become a candidate it’s going to be because we have enough resources where we think we can at least compete in the early states. We’re not going to get anywhere close to that, but could we have enough to put gas in the plane so it could take off the ground, and that’s an assessment that we’re in the process of making.

TIME: If you had to put odds on it?

Kasich: We don’t know yet. We’re getting close. We’re going to have to decide things relatively soon. And how do I feel about it, I feel pretty good. I feel like we’re making progress.

TIME: Was this meeting helpful in that regard?

Kasich: Not yet, we’ll see. We have lots more meetings. I came here because Mitt invited me, I didn’t come to some of the other ones. I thought it was important to get out here and let people—a lot of people said we know of him, but we don’t really know him. In that regard this was helpful. I hope. I don’t know what the people were saying. I don’t know.

TIME: You talked about your approval rating taking a hit your first year as governor. What did you learn from that?

Kasich: Got crushed! The one thing that I really learned from that is, you really want to unite. And if you have to fight and you divide, that’s okay, but just don’t do it all the time. Look, we were $8 billion in a hole, we had many things we had to do to climb out of that. And once we started climbing out, we were in a better position. I’m also a change agent. And when you’re a change agent, it shakes people up. Why do you think when people hear me talk they get like, what is this guy, who is this guy. Why doesn’t he say what we expect him to say. That kind of message, it rattles people. And then peoples started to get used to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if my poll numbers went down again. That’s just the way it is. You can’t worry about it.

TIME: What’s the better metric?

Kasich: Results. Harry Truman did not run for re-election because people thought he would not win. He didn’t think he was going to win. It turns out he was one of our great presidents. It’s results. It’s not polls, and popularity. They ran Winston Churchill out of politics for a while, but look at what he ultimately did. It’s results that matter, nothing other than that.

TIME: You got your results. You left Washington. You went to Lehman. You were there during the financial collapse. What did you learn from that, in terms of how banks and financial institutions should be regulated.

Kasich: On the biggest issue, they’re already imposing capital requirements now. But one of the things you don’t want to do is treat the big boys the same way you treat the regional boys, because you then start snuffing out opportunity. When you step on the air hose and people can’t loan money, that’s like the kiss of death for business. Business has to have capital. At the same time, I think Wall Street is a necessary ingredient of the global economy, but you know, you’ve just got to keep people realizing that helping clients is the most important thing, not helping yourself.

TIME: Any regrets from that period?

Kasich: It was fantastic. Are you kidding? Regrets? I thought it was a fantastic time. I traveled all over the country. I got an incredible education. I worked my tail off. It was great.

TIME: What did you learn?

Kasich: I worked with private equity. I worked with venture capital. I worked with many different times of companies. I learned about how America works, how free enterprise works, how business executives think, how decisions get made. It’s an incalculable thing that I learned.

TIME: Last time around, candidates were asked whether they would take a 10-1 deal on spending cuts to tax increases. Would you?

Kasich: Right now, I just don’t think that revenue is what we should be talking about. I think that, look, I ran the budget committee. I was one of the architects of the balanced budget. We actually cut taxes then. I had to remain President Obama that early in my tenure as governor. I think let’s focus on changing these programs and making them more efficient. I worry about spending more money, because you know what happens, every time you put more money into the system, they spend it and they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

TIME: Would you sign something like the Americans for Tax Reform pledge?

Kasich: I’m not signing any pledges. I’m not signing any pledges. I’m just not going to sign any pledges. My record speaks for itself.

TIME: The debt ceiling will be hit this fall. What should Republicans in Congress do?

Kasich: They should be working with their colleagues, working with the administration to put something together that’s going to get us to balance over time.

TIME: Should that be a prerequisite to raising the debt ceiling?

Kasich: I’m never going to say what should be happening regardless. I’m not going to respond to that.

TIME: What did you learn from standing up to some in your own party on Medicaid expansion?

Kasich: I’ve never thought anything about it. It was the right thing to do. We’re helping the drug addicted, the working poor, the mentally ill. I didn’t see it as standing up to my party really, I just saw it as carrying out something that I thought was important for my state. Here’s the thing you have to realize, the Republican Party is my vehicle, and not my master. My job is to try to figure out how to fix things, and I’m going to fix things as best as I can. I’m going to get a team together to fix things. And I can’t sit around and worrying what the heck the chairman of the Republican Party thinks about what I’m doing. I have to do what has to be done to bring improvement. What would I do? Say, oh well, the Republicans don’t like this therefor I shouldn’t do it. What kind of a government would that be. We’re not a parliamentary system.

TIME: In 2011 you signed an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, putting you on the forefront of states controlled by Republican governors. What did you think of the RFRA debate in Indiana and elsewhere?

Kasich: We don’t have that issue in Ohio, and I just don’t think we should discriminate against anyone, plain and simple.

TIME: That executive order did not include protections based on gender identity. Is that something you would be open to?

Kasich: I put the executive order out and it covers who it covers. And if I saw a reason to investigate something else, I’d look at it.

TIME: On foreign policy, some in your party have taken a more isolationist approach, the Rand Paul model—

Kasich: No. I don’t think America should be the policeman of the world, but we have to be engaged and we have to be a leader, and that comes from strong economic growth, a strong military, good diplomatic efforts, and integrating our business community. I just think it’s a whole new paradigm. And Gen. Jim Jones has been proposing sort of—that our military commanders, combatant commanders, work closely with our diplomatic corps, and including the business community in all this. People would say we’re already doing it. I don’t believe it. I think there needs to be more of an integration, so that we look at these issues holistically.

TIME: Soft power?

Kasich: I would say some soft, and some really tough power. Let’s think about how we can bring economic development, let’s see if people could learn a little more of the rule of law, rather than the rule of man, which is kind of what you see in China now. And business people have a a good view of what’s happening internally in countries, and they can be a positive force. And so I think there needs to be a full integration of all of that. But you have to have a strong military and it needs to be rebuilt.

TIME: You spoke about the need to reform the military. How would you go about doing that?

Kasich: The whole thing needs to be looked at. We still have systems we don’t need, we have infrastructure we don’t need. Is there a way to preposition equipment. Are there technologies that can take the place of more expensive, traditional military equipment. Can we get our allies to become more robust. It’s a whole series of things that you need to do. But the building itself—I mean, why do you have over 900,000 bureaucrats working in one way or another in all these systems. It becomes complicated. It’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done.

TIME: Are there specific programs that you have in mind?

Kasich: Well, that’s a process we’re going through right now. And I’ll have more to say about that in the future.

TIME: There are a number of military bases in Ohio, you mentioned base closures, should they be—

Kasich: I think that bases should be closed on the basis or opened on the basis of what they contribute to our national security. I went through when I was a congressmen, one of my operations shutting down. Look, I was at Pease Air Force Base, it got shut down, and they turned lemons into lemonade. The Pentagon needs precious resources to build the strength of America, and we can’t say, ‘this is really important to this community, and it’s really not vital to the national security, but we ought to do it anyway.’ So, I think we have to have a discipline on this.

TIME: What is the greatest impediment for you, as you potentially go down this road? Money? Name-ID? Convincing voters you have the right vision?

Kasich: I don’t really see — I’m pretty optimistic about what I’m seeing. I know that the world would shudder, if I were able to clone me, but it would be great if there were more of me to go around so you could get to more places to talk to more people. I would say, I don’t kind of look at life that way. I’m not looking at impediments right now. I just look at opportunities. As Arnold Schwarzenegger told me one time, “Love the beatings.” [in accent] As Arnold told me one time, “Going down the slope, love the moguls.” I think that’s right, that’s a good attitude about life, and it’s a good attitude about politics.

TIME: You have something of a reputation for having some rough edges. Do you see that in yourself sometimes?

Kasich: I’m from Pittsburgh, we’re pretty direct from outside of Pittsburgh.

TIME: That’s like the Chris Christie response.

Kasich: I don’t know about that. But look, we build teams of people and we’ve had really great results. And we’re just going to build good teams o people. One of the great, most heartening things was, being in New Hampshire many years ago, many of the people that I touched back then are with me today. They want to help. Isn’t that a great thing?

TIME: John Sununu being one of them.

Kasich: John, but Bruce Burke, and there’s a host of them. There are people who said, hey, if he’s doing it again, I want to be involved, and that’s really, really cool.

TIME Scott Walker

Walker Defends Rape and Incest Position on Abortion Bill

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.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is under fire from Democrats for supporting legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, including in cases of rape or incest.

The unannounced presidential candidate told reporters Monday that he would sign a 20-week abortion ban proposed by the Badger State legislature, regardless of whether it includes rape or incest exemptions.

“I think for most people who are concerned about that, it’s in the initial months when they are most concerned about it,” Walker said. “In this case, it’s an unborn life, it’s an unborn child, that’s why we feel strongly about it. I’m prepared to sign it either way they send it to us.”

A version of the bill passed by the Wisconsin House of Representatives does not include exceptions for rape or incest but does have a provision permitting abortions that would save the life of the mother. It would also allow the mother or father to seek civil damages against a doctor who carried out an abortion after 20 weeks.

The issue is a potentially perilous one for Walker. Polls show broad support among voters, including a majority of Republicans, for legal abortions in at least some instances, such as when the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest. The last three Republican presidential nominees—Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush—all backed such exemptions.

Walker’s political opponents painted his position as extreme. “Once again, Scott Walker has placed his own rigid, backward ideology ahead of the best interests of the people of his state,” said Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “Already, this bill takes away a decision that should be between a woman and her doctor. Already, it doesn’t allow for any exceptions even for survivors of rape or incest. And now, shocking new details show that Scott Walker wants to go even further to take away a woman’s say in her own health. Rape survivors deserve more protections under the law, not less.”

Democrats have had political success in recent years skewering conservatives for ill-considered statements about women’s health. In 2012, Barack Obama earned the support of 56% of female voters, compared to 44% for Romney, after the Democrats made the GOP’s alleged “war on women” a centerpiece of campaigns up and down the ballot. Walker is not the only national Republican to face questions on the issue as the 2016 campaign gets underway. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul found himself in hot water shortly after announcing his presidential campaign two months ago when he wouldn’t say whether he would support exceptions to abortion bans.

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Walker’s political committee, Our American Revival, defended the governor’s stance. “A majority of Americans agree with Governor Walker that life after five months should be protected,” she told TIME. “Governor Walker has been very clear that he will sign a bill passed by the legislature to ensure the state of Wisconsin protects life after five months.”

“What’s far outside the mainstream in this country is the Democrat Party’s disregard for babies capable of feeling pain,” Strong added. “It’s unfortunate that far-left extremists are eager to twist an issue that most Americans have consensus on.”

Walker’s position on the bill is not new. In a March letter to the conservative Susan B. Anthony List, the two-term governor said he would sign the 20-week abortion ban and advocate for it on the federal level.

Such a stance could be a boon to Walker’s hopes of capturing the Iowa caucuses, which are dominated by social conservative activists. But they could backfire on the all-but-certain presidential contender by leaving him vulnerable to partisan attacks, especially should he become the Republican nominee.

It’s an issue the GOP has hoped to avoid. Since the 2012 election, Republican strategists have sought to neutralize the “war on women” trope by embracing over-the-counter birth control, championing female candidates and largely avoiding rape-related gaffes.

“The Democrats were painting us as the caveman party,“ says Katie Packer Gage, a former top aide to Romney and founder of Burning Glass Consulting, a firm that has focused on helping male Republican candidates talk about issues important to women.

Packer Gage acknowledged Walker’s comments could hurt him. But she said the 20-week abortion ban, if properly handled, could be a winning issue for Republicans in the general election. “We have [Democrats] a bit backed into the corner because the public support is there, even among women,” she told TIME. “Many people believe that if you haven’t figured this out in 20 weeks, well, the decision has probably already been made and you should probably go forward.”

Liz Mair, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Walker, noted that many women who support the right to an abortion draw a distinction between late-term abortions and those performed during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Mair, who supports a woman’s right to an abortion in the first trimester, argued it is extreme to support abortions during the final three months of a pregnancy if the mother’s life is not at risk.

TIME Lindsey Graham

Why Lindsey Graham Matters in the 2016 Race

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham announces he will seek the Republican Party nomination for president in Central, South Carolina, on June 1, 2015.
Bloomberg via Getty Images South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham announces he will seek the Republican Party nomination for president in Central, South Carolina, on June 1, 2015.

Even though he won't win

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham launched his campaign for the presidency Monday with an announcement speech that promised to restore a muscular foreign policy in a dangerous world.

“I want to be president to defeat the enemies trying to kill us, not just penalize them or criticize them or contain them, but defeat them,” Graham said, standing on the Central, S.C., street where he was raised in the back room of a pool hall and liquor store. “I have more experience with our national security than any other candidate in this race.”

Graham, 59, is the ninth Republican to enter the race, a field that may nearly double in size by the Iowa caucuses. And he is unlikely to emerge from the crowded primary pack.

Read More: The Full Text of Lindsey Graham’s Campaign Launch

A rounding error in the polls, Graham lacks a national profile or fundraising network and suffers from a sour relationship with the grassroots activists who dominate the GOP presidential primary. In an age of political combat, he is one of Capitol Hill’s few surviving dealmakers, willing to buck the base to partner with Democrats on issues like immigration and environmental legislation.

But even if he won’t become President, Graham will be a player in the chase for the White House: as a hawk in a party with renewed focused on the threat of Islamic terrorism; as an agitator whose folksy style masks a taste for skewering his rivals; and as a potential kingmaker, whose base of support in the nation’s first southern primary state gives him the potential to tip a tight contest with an endorsement.

Graham previewed the themes of his campaign Monday with an announcement speech that focused heavily on national security. “We’ve made some dangerous mistakes in recent years. The Obama Administration, and some of my colleagues in Congress, substituted wishful thinking for sound national security strategy,” Graham said. “As President, I will make them small, poor and on the run.”

Just a year ago, such rhetoric would have set Graham apart in a party that has grown weary after more than a decade of continuous war. But the rise of the Islamic State, the spreading chaos in the Middle East and the prospect of a nuclear accord with Iran has helped the GOP rediscover its hawkish leanings. An election that once seemed destined to showcase the party’s surprising dovishness has transformed into a battle about who can be toughest on the terrorists.

Read More: How Lindsey Graham First Earned a Reputation for Bucking the GOP

The shift fits squarely in Graham’s wheelhouse. Recently retired after 33 years in the U.S. Air Force, he has the deepest military background of any 2016 GOP candidate. “Radical Islam is running wild,” he said Monday. “They have more safe havens, more money, more capability and more weapons to strike our homeland than anytime since 9/11. They are large, rich and entrenched.” But the party’s evolving foreign policy is a mixed blessing for Graham. Though no longer a lonely voice for foreign intervention, he may be a less influential voice now that he is no longer the only candidate promising to flex the nation’s muscles.

There is still no one in the Republican field who can match Graham’s gift for the crowd-rousing zinger—a talent that wins him a media profile bigger than his poll numbers. Graham often uses the spotlight to throw darts at his rivals. And most of the time, GOP Sen. Rand Paul is the target. “I think Sen. Paul’s record on [foreign policy] is frankly behind President Obama,” Graham told reporters recently. “If he’s the nominee of the party, I think we risk giving up the central issue of the 2016 campaign, which will be foreign policy.” If Paul’s campaign for the presidency picks up steam, Graham is poised to be the Kentuckian’s chief tormentor.

He’s also the only 2016 Republican who will contest a crucial primary on home turf. Last year Graham won a third term representing the Palmetto State, the first Southern state to hold elections in an increasingly Southern party. If his own campaign can’t gain traction by the time of the primary, he’ll be positioned to give someone else a critical boost.

Though few predict he’ll emerge victorious, Graham’s allies believe he has the potential to pull some surprises. He’s a canny operator from humble beginnings, with a proven ability to energize crowds and valuable ties to one of the party’s premier donors. And as a foreign policy candidate in what is shaping up as a foreign policy election, he’s likely to stay in the headlines for as long as he stays in the race.

“The world is exploding in terror and violence,” he told supporters in South Carolina Monday. It’s not sunny stuff. But these are the kinds of lines that could make Graham a factor in fearful times.

Read More: The Three Best Friends Who Ran for President

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 religious freedom

Republican Party to Vote in Support of Religious-Freedom Laws

Protesters
Doug McSchooler—AP Thousands of opponents of Indiana Senate Bill 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, gather on the lawn of the Indiana state house to rally against that legislation on March 28, 2015

The GOP follows presidential candidates as issue takes hold on campaign trail

The Republican National Committee is expected to approve a resolution Thursday reaffirming support for so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, undeterred by controversy in Indiana and Arkansas over whether such measures sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The Resolution Affirming Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) passed through the RNC’s resolutions committee Wednesday during the RNC’s spring meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., and will be voted on by the full 168-member governing body Friday. The party traditionally votes on all resolutions as a package, and the RFRA resolution is expected to pass with little or no opposition.

“The Republican National Committee stands firm in upholding natural, human, constitutional, and, under the RFRA, statutory rights of religious freedom,” the resolution states.

A nationwide firestorm erupted after Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a RFRA resolution into law that critics contended would allow business owners with religious objections to opt out of servicing same-sex weddings. Indiana’s resolution went further than the federal statute, which has been on the books since the Clinton administration. A similar controversy in Arkansas led to Governor Asa Hutchinson demanding changes to the law to bring it in line with the federal statute before signing it.

The cautiously worded RNC resolution encourages states to mirror the federal law, rather than the controversial Indiana version.

“The Republican National Committee supports and encourages States’ actions to enact laws that mirror the federal RFRA to protect citizens’ rights to lead all aspects of their lives according to their deeply held religious beliefs,” it states.

The resolution comes as the issue of religious freedom has become a significant conversation piece on the presidential campaign trail.

“The Republican Party will always stand for and defend religious freedom,” RNC press secretary Allison Moore tells TIME.

Separate RNC resolutions expected to pass Friday include one supporting Republican lawmakers in their criticism of the emerging nuclear agreement between the Obama Administration and Iran, and another calling for the replacement of the Administrative Procedure Act, a law that sets how executive agencies propose and enact regulations.

Yet another resolution reaffirms the party’s neutrality in the presidential nominating procedure, even as the RNC has seized control of the debate process. The party and television networks hosting the early debates this summer are struggling with how to include a field of more than a dozen candidates on stage.

TIME Republican Party

Republicans Prepare for Painstaking Nomination Fight

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at the National Press Club in Washington, in 2013.
Manuel Balce Ceneta—AP Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at the National Press Club in Washington, in 2013. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at the National Press Club in Washington, in 2013.

It could be like the Obama-Clinton fight of 2008, only with more candidates

After Mitt Romney’s bruising nomination fight in 2012, Republican Party officials changed the rules in an effort to streamline the 2016 primaries. But the increased influence of super PACs and an unusually deep bench of candidates mean the changes could have the opposite effect intended.

Several Republican presidential hopefuls are already preparing for a long, blistering and potentially inconclusive nominating fight that could go all the way to the national convention.

“The rules were designed to make it more of a contest so that more states and activists are engaged in the process—and that’s definitely going to happen,” says Steve Duprey, the New Hampshire National Committeeman who helped to shepherd the rules changes through in 2012 and 2013. “The bad news is, this campaign is likely to go on longer than we’ve seen in a long time.”

Republican Party officials blamed a broken primary process in 2012 for contributing to Romney’s defeat and set about changing the party rules to keep it from happening again.

The committee shortened the calendar between the first caucus and the last primary, required the binding of delegates in primaries and caucuses and raised the bar for nominating candidates on the convention floor, requiring a nominee to win the majority of eight state or territory delegations. The idea was that a compressed timetable would favor better-funded candidates, while keeping lesser candidates from making a scene in Cleveland.

But three years later, the primary will be playing out in a very different stage, one where a massive crop of candidates with huge sums of unlimited cash have little incentive to exit early. Party operatives and campaign aides are predicting a longer, more intense contest next year than in 2012. They believe it will be more akin to the Obama-Clinton fight in 2008—a slow state-by-state contest to rack up delegates—only with a lot more candidates remaining competitive.

On paper, the RNC’s efforts will shorten the time from the Iowa Caucuses to when the nominee clinches a majority of delegates—primarily accomplished by a successful effort to keep the first contests from advancing into February. But Romney’s victory was all-but-assured months before he secured 50% of convention delegates in late May 2012.

Josh Putnam, an assistant professor at Appalachian State University who runs the exhaustive Frontloading HQ blog tracking the primary calendar, explains that about 50% of delegates to the GOP convention will be awarded by March 8, 2016, with 75% awarded by April 26—both weeks earlier than in 2012. “That is important because the last two Republican nominees established a lead by that 50% point and had clinched the nomination around the time that 75% of the delegates had been allocated,” he says.

But changes in campaign finance and an unusually strong field threaten to throw that precedent out the window. Now many party strategists expect four to six candidates to emerge as a top tier from the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. With roughly the same delegate support and momentum, they expect that the proportional contests in early March—when a front-runner usually emerges—may not be decisive. On March 1, for instance, more than 600 delegates are set to be awarded. “Lots of people will be able to claim victory that day,” said one top advisor to a Republican candidate.

Meanwhile, the rest of field may be in no hurry to go anywhere. The explosion of mega-donors writing significant checks to candidates and their super PACs has mitigated the historical impetus for dropping out, while the lessons of the up-and-down 2012 primary have incentivized staying in the race even when the odds turns slim.

“This could actually be a convention that matters for the first time since 1964,” says Saul Anuzis, the Michigan state chairman for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid and a former RNC member who backed the rules changes. “I still don’t think most of the campaigns have an infrastructure in place to deal with it.”

Not all strategists blame the predictions of a messy nomination process on the new rules. Michael Shields, the former RNC chief of staff, told TIME he believes the deciding factor in stretching out the primary in 2016 is likely to be the number of candidates who can raise money. “It would have been longer without the reform,” he said.

To be sure, all the prognosticating could also be wrong—a single candidate could build enough momentum in the early states to run away with the nomination in weeks. But with a field of more than a dozen candidates that appears at the moment to be unlikely.

Some campaigns are only just coming to the realization that this contest will be far different from the last, having spent the past months focused on the early states. “Those who have started to think it through recognize it’s going to be a long chase for delegates,” said a veteran GOP strategist.

Anuzis said Cruz is planning for the long haul and is already eyeing favorable congressional districts in California—which will go to the polls on June 7, 2016, and awards its delegates to the winners in each congressional district. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign has hired Jon Waclawski, a veteran of the RNC counsel’s office who was involved in drafting the rules after the 2012 campaign, as its counsel and chief delegate counter. People close to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s campaign said his team is drawing up plans to deal with what they expect to be a painstaking fight for delegates.

“This changes the way you have to run your entire campaign,” says one candidate aide. “You really do have to target, racking up local endorsements, for instance. Those people are going to be important when you’re competing on a congressional district by congressional district basis.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s advisers see the proportional contests in early March, and the potential for a drawn out delegate fight, working to their advantage. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told reporters Thursday that he is broadly supportive of the rules changes, but is worried about the compressed calendar, “and it becomes just a money issue, and not an issue of momentum.”

What remains to be seen is whether this intensified primary process will be a benefit or liability to the eventual nominee in the general election. The knockdown, drag-out 2008 Democratic contest is viewed as having ultimately helped Obama, who emerged tested with a network of support outside of the early primary states. For months after winning the nomination, Republican presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain could hardly gain notice from the media­. “Will there be some broken glass, will there be some negative attacks, sure,” Shields acknowledged. “But I do believe this process, like the Obama-Hillary one, will leave our nominee stronger.”

Others are less sanguine, fearing the compressed timeframe could result in a more weakened nominee, battered by months of attacks from candidates and super PACs

“It’s pretty different when it’s a two person extended race opposed to a multi-person race—and in 2008 you didn’t have super PACs playing the role that they did and they generally tend to go negative,” said another longtime GOP operative.

With reporting by Philip Elliott/Little Rock, Ark.

TIME Debates

The GOP’s First Big 2016 Test: Fitting Candidates on the Debate Stage

Republican presidential candidates are introduced during the ABC News, Yahoo! News, and WMUR Republican Presidential Debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. on Jan. 7, 2012.
Win McNamee—Getty Images Republican presidential candidates are introduced during the ABC News, Yahoo! News, and WMUR Republican Presidential Debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. on Jan. 7, 2012.

From 23 debates in 2012 to as many as 17 candidates in 2016.

The Republican Party has a whole new debate problem in 2016.

After suffering through a seemingly endless and unwieldy stream of 23 debates in the 2012 cycle, the Republican National Committee took control of the process, marshaling networks and candidates to agree to a framework where they only participate in fewer than a dozen sanctioned debates. But now the national party and networks face the new challenge of arranging as many as 17 candidates on a single televised stage.

Largely out of view, executives and journalists from Fox and CNN, with input from the national party, are weighing the entrance criteria for the first two debates. Among the options being considered is using polling as a rough inclusionary test, followed by a fundraising metric—dollars raised or the number of individual donors activated. All of these things are in flux as the networks and the national party struggle with the largest plausible debate field in history.

“This is truly historic in that normally you are trying to get people into the debates and now you are trying to whittle people out of the debates,” said one Republican operative familiar with the debate process. “You’ve never had more than 10 candidates in either party on a debate stage. You could get to at least 16 to 17 candidates and make a legitimate case for them being there—easy.”

The first debate, in Cleveland in August, will be the most pivotal, according to GOP operatives and campaign aides. Failure to earn a place on the stage will likely be the death knell to a campaign, depriving a candidate of an opportunity to shine, and a visible mark of failure in a crowded field. Republicans who have traveled the country boosting their name recognition but who haven’t made any steps toward actually running, like Rep. Pete King and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, are, by all accounts, out.

“There are only so many people you can hear from in a 90- or 120-minute debate, so you’ve got to be fair and transparent,” said the operative of the necessary winnowing.

Carson, according to a number of party insiders, is all-but-guaranteed a spot given his relatively strong polling in the GOP field. The bigger issue is former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina—the only woman seeking the Republican nomination and also one of the party’s most ferocious Clinton critics—who barely registers in polling. Both announced their presidential candidacies on Monday.

Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who will join in questioning the candidates at the second debate sponsored by CNN in partnership with Salem Radio Network at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. in September, told TIME Monday he hopes that all credible candidates are included. “It should be a credible path to either the nomination or the vice presidency or a senior position in the next administration,” Hewitt said, before adding the final decision isn’t his.

There’s also the matter of Donald Trump. The reality television star has formed a presidential exploratory committee but has yet to officially declare himself a candidate for the White House. Should he do so, many Republican insiders say it would be hard for the party to exclude him—voters find him entertaining and he has a large megaphone with which he could embarrass the GOP. “This sounds crazy, but it’s safer to just include him,” said one 2016 presidential aide.

Beyond the first debate, the RNC is hoping to progressively tighten the debate criteria as the primaries approach, effectively winnowing the massive GOP field and signaling to voters which candidates have the wherewithal to go the distance.

But even if all the declared candidates make the stage, there is still the not insignificant problem of running a debate with a football squad on stage. “Here’s my radical suggestion: four hours—and I am dead serious—four hours with five minute breaks at the top of every hour, let people go out to the bathroom, let them talk to their aides,” Hewitt said on his radio show. “They will get huge ratings. No one’s going to rush, no one’s going to feel like they’ve got to get their time in, as opposed to the classic 90 minutes.”

Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s chief strategist, criticized the media’s hyping of third-tier candidates to boost ratings last cycle in a much-circulated 2013 essay. He told TIME recently that he supports the RNC’s efforts, but said news outlets must take steps to ensure only those candidates who can actually win make it on stage. “The news business is a business and very competitive, of course, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing to see leadership from media working together to avoid the obvious problems of 2012,” he said.

For some candidates, the problem may be even more fundamental than the debate stage. They need to make sure they are included in polling, first. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released Monday, the roster of candidates did not include Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

“I am reasonably confident that I will make sufficient progress to be on that debate stage in August,” Fiorina told reporters Monday morning, just hours after she declared her candidacy in an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America. “They ought to be looking at support, they ought to be looking at endorsements,” she said, adding, “I think the polls will come along in due time.”

Last cycle’s debates were notable for their ability to drastically reshape the race, creating and destroying candidates like Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. After the party’s 2012 defeat, Republican chairman Reince Priebus defied beltway expectations and seized control of the primary debates process. “I think having control over the debates so that we don’t turn this into a 23 debate circus in front of people who don’t care at all about the party but only care about making news for themselves, that’s number one,” Priebus said earlier this year when asked which of the party reforms he implemented is most significant.

A spokesperson for CNN did not comment on the record. A spokesperson for Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.

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.

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