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Donald Trump's immigration meltdown threatens to infect GOP

Donald Trump is surging in popularity with Republicans while suffering a meltdown in Hispanic media, a dangerous combination for the GOP in 2016.

Donald Trump is surging in popularity with Republicans, while suffering a meltdown in Hispanic media over inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants -- a radioactive combination that threatens to drag down the GOP's efforts to win Latino voters. 

On Monday, Trump doubled down on his claim that Mexicans in the U.S. were primarily “rapists” and criminals, a notion at odd with statistics indicating immigrants commit crimes at a significantly lower rate than native-born Americans. His initial comments about Mexicans and crime, made at his presidential campaign kickoff last month, ignited a controversy that led businesses including NBC Universal and Macy's to cut ties with him.

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“What can be simpler or more accurately stated?” Trump said in a written statement. “The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc."

Republican presidential candidates are split over how to handle Trump, with some rushing to condemn the spectacle, and others arguing that the real estate mogul is onto something. It’s the latest dramatization of a long-running GOP debate over whether to prioritize Latino voters or white voters in 2016 and the role immigration should play in the process. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has advocated for immigration reform that would grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, slammed Trump’s “extraordinarily ugly” comments over the weekend in New Hampshire. Bush said the comments were meant “to inflame and incite and to draw attention, which seems to be the organizing principle of his campaign.” Trump responded on Twitter by sharing a message from a follower declaring Bush "has to like Mexican illegals because of his wife,” who was born in Mexico, before deleting the tweet from his account.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has waffled on immigration policy but made his biography as the child of Cuban immigrants central to his campaign, called Trump’s remarks “not just offensive and inaccurate, but also divisive” in a statement on Friday. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has taken on Trump as well, and former New York Gov. George Pataki on Monday even challenged him to an immigration debate. 

But not every 2016 hopeful is joining the pile-on. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose campaign is focused on winning over anti-establishment hardliners of the type Trump tends to attract, had plenty of praise for his rival.

“I salute Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration,” Cruz told NBC's "Meet The Press" host Chuck Todd on Sunday. “The Washington cartel doesn't want to address that. The Washington cartel doesn't believe we need to secure the borders. The Washington cartel supports amnesty, and I think amnesty's wrong.”

RELATED: Pataki challenges Trump: Let’s go ‘mano a mano’

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who has called for reductions in legal immigration, said Monday that it should come as no surprise that Trump said “some outrageous things.”

“I mean, that’s what Donald Trump does,” Santorum told msnbc’s Chris Matthews on “Hardball.” “The idea that we’re now going to police Donald Trump’s speech is almost ridiculous on its face. You know, he’s a flamboyant guy who says things that are edgy and marginal.”

Santorum added that he doesn’t agree with everything Trump says, but he commended Trump for raising the “very important issue” of immigration.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has tacked right on immigration this year, has yet to respond to Trump.

Until recently, it was possible to dismiss Trump as a sideshow -- his regular outbursts received far less coverage when most reporters assumed he wouldn’t go through with a presidential run. Not only has Trump announced a campaign, but he has surged to second place in polls of Republican voters nationally and in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. As long as that trend keeps up, the story isn’t just Trump the blowhard; it’s the Republican voters who love him and how far rival candidates will go to steal them back. It's a dynamic that will hang over the GOP's first presidential debate in August -- the most high-profile showcase for the party's 2016 field yet -- if Trump meets the polling requirement to participate, which now looks likely.

For Republican strategists who have spent years drilling candidates in how to make the party more welcoming to immigrants, the upside to this weekend’s Trump coverage is that the 4th of July fireworks masked the sound of them banging their heads against the wall. To the extent there is any consensus at all among GOP leaders on how to win over Latinos – only 27% of whom voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, per exit polls -- it’s that Republicans need to avoid overheated rhetoric that voters find insulting. Trump's comments, which have garnered major coverage in Hispanic media and prompted a nationalist backlash in Mexico, are as off-message as it gets.

“It’s not a positive development to have someone like Trump disparage the contribution of immigrants to the conservative brand, especially the Republican brand,” Daniel Garza -- executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a group backed by the Koch brothers’ donor network devoted to selling Latinos on conservatism -- told msnbc in an interview. 

Garza said he saw at least some silver lining to the Trump episode. By breaking decisively with Trump, candidates like Bush and Rubio had a chance to show they were willing to criticize anti-immigrant voices within the party. The rapidly organized campaign by Latino activists to pressure companies to dump Trump also served as a warning shot to politicians that there were real risks to crossing the line. 

“It’s a long primary,” he said. “Sensible folks will prevail.”

Democrats are jumping on Trump’s polling bump to argue that other candidates’ immigration positions – from Rubio abandoning his own immigration bill to Walker reversing himself on a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants – are panders to his nativist fans.

RELATED: Donald Trump feuds with Jeb Bush

“Frankly, I wish Donald Trump’s utter disrespect for Mexicans and immigrants were unique in the Republican field,” Democratic National Committee Hispanic Media Director Pablo Manriquez said in a statement on Monday. “Sadly, it’s just an unvarnished look at their anti-immigrant policies.”

Attacks like these will lose some sting if Republicans finally end their on-again, off-again romance with Trump and his particular brand of populism. It’s tough to make the case the GOP has moved on while other candidates are still praising Trump along with a chorus of columnists at conservative media outlets, from National Review to The Washington Times. Last month, the 2016 field and party leaders were able to head off an emerging controversy around the Confederate flag in the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre by presenting a united front in favor of its removal. No such unity exists this time.     

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has called Trump’s remarks “not helpful,” but some in the party are looking for a stronger response from top GOP officials.

“You’ve got to have that Sister Souljah moment with the party, where you have to be honest and call it what it is,” former RNC Chairman Michael Steele said on NBC’s "Meet The Press," referring to Bill Clinton’s decision to criticize comments on race by rapper Sister Souljah during his 1992 campaign. “People are sophisticated enough to know when you’re just full of BS.”