The Republican presidential candidates who have gotten sucked into Donald Trump's toxic orbit on immigration are slowly starting to claw their way out, gathering faith that the billionaire's divisive remarks won't be enough to bring down the entire GOP.
In the meantime, however, the party appears to be orchestrating some damage control. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus spent an hour on the phone with Trump on Thursday, urging him to moderate his inflammatory remarks on immigration, the RNC confirmed to NBC News. The call is seen as a sign that the GOP is becoming seriously alarmed that the real estate mogul has alienated Latinos, a group considered key to the party's success in 2016.
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Trump has also recently not spared his fellow Republican candidates from his signature bluster. He personally tailored attacks against his critics — saying former Texas Gov. Rick Perry "failed" at the border and calling Florida Sen. Marco Rubio "very weak" on immigration.
Now his opponents are hitting back.
Perry posted a three-minute video online Wednesday dedicated entirely to addressing Trump's attacks and defending his record of serving 14 years as governor in a state that shares the longest border with Mexico. "Your comments about Mexicans are offensive," Perry says in the clip. “Your remarks might make for good reality TV, but they are way out of touch with reality."
In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Rubio said Trump's comments distract from the substance of the immigration debate. "I think voters are capable of distinguishing the Republican Party from Donald Trump, and he'll have to respond for his own comments," he said. "I obviously strongly disagree with them. They're inaccurate and they're offensive and they're divisive."
That distinction represents a gamble that more moderate candidates on immigration say the Republican Party cannot afford. Mitt Romney's share of the Latino vote barely topped 27% in the 2012 presidential election. And for Republican strategists who see making inroads with Latino voters as crucial a 2016 win, Trump calling Mexican immigrants "rapists" and drug dealers is about as far away as possible in making that happen.
“My party is in a hole with Hispanics. The first rule of politics when you’re in a hole is to stop digging. Somebody needs to take the shovel out of Donald Trump’s hand,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Wednesday.
In contrast, the controversy places a hammer in the hands of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton: She's able to lump the entire GOP field together with Trump and bash them all on immigration. On Monday, she chided Republican candidates for failing to swiftly denounce Trump while continuing to alienate Latinos. “They range across a spectrum of being either grudgingly welcome or hostile towards immigrants,” she told CNN.
As each day goes by, Trump isn't helping the situation for Republicans — even as he watches more and more business partners flee from his radioactive remarks.
The statistics that he cites are a far cry from reality. In his latest interview with NBC News, Trump said the undocumented immigrant population in the United States ranged from 11 to 31 million people — an eye-popping figure considering that the actual number is closer to 11.2 million, according to what's considered the gold-standard estimate from Pew Research Center. And if Trump were reaching for the number of Latinos living in the U.S. who have Mexican roots, he would still be off by a couple million. (Pew finds are about 34 million Hispanics with Mexican origins living in the United States.) Meanwhile, he has rejected statistics showing that immigrants are less likely than American citizens to be criminals.
Trump on Wednesday took credit for causing the immigration headache for the rest of the GOP presidential field while also asserting that, despite his comments, he'll win the Latino vote in 2016. "You wouldn't even be hearing about immigration if it wasn’t for Donald Trump, immigration is a word, illegal immigration — I brought the whole subject up," he bragged.