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Steve King, once a GOP pariah, emerges as critical 2016 player

Republican presidential candidates, you are now on notice: Steve King is watching you.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Republican presidential candidates, you are now on notice: Steve King, the party's most influential critic of immigration reform, is watching you.

The veteran Iowa congressman will be in the spotlight on Saturday, hosting an array of 2016 prospects at his Iowa Freedom Summit, including Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson and others. The event is serving as an informal kickoff to next year's presidential contest, taking place in the state that hosts the first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses.

“This is the beginning of the selection process for the planks of the platform for the next president of the United States,” King told msnbc in an interview on his flight to Des Moines. “The speeches they give -- some of that will live to and through the general election.”

"Their agenda has been marginalized. Mine's been strengthened."'

The event comes as Republicans including Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, who aren't scheduled to attend King's gathering, are moving publicly closer to getting into the race. But the event is also a personal triumph for King, whose fortunes within the GOP have risen and fallen and now risen again, mostly in tandem with immigration. He now stands to play a major role vetting the party’s next nominee. 

Two years ago, King was a voice that GOP leaders wished would just go away. Just as Republicans were trying to court Latino voters by passing immigration reform through Congress, King rolled a grenade into the tent with his comment that DREAMers -- young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children -- were primarily drug mules with “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling marijuana bales. Boehner publicly rebuked King for “hateful language” and privately called him an “asshole,” according to one Congressman’s account. RNC chair Reince Priebus, who had signed off on a post-election report urging the GOP to pass immigration reform, denounced King’s comments as “hurtful.”

Related: Rep. Steve King calls Obama’s SOTU guest a ‘deportable’

Since then, King has decisively seized control of the House GOP’s immigration agenda. He forced through an amendment in 2013 to block DACA, which grants temporary deportation relief to DREAMers. He also personally crafted a border security bill with Boehner’s approval last summer that again targeted the program, and whipped conservatives behind a Homeland Security bill this month that would expose virtually all undocumented immigrants to blanket deportation. Boehner backed away from immigration reform entirely last June even though a comprehensive bill had passed the Senate in 2013 with bipartisan support. And, despite some happy talk from GOP leaders, the prospects for legislation look bleak this year. 

King is not above gloating. His staff kept a running list of some 12-16 prominent Republicans who’ve leveled personal criticisms against him. The congressman said he went over it himself the other day, just for old time’s sake.

"Their agenda has been marginalized,” a smiling King told msnbc. “Mine's been strengthened."

Not only has King’s agenda carried the day on Capitol Hill, the damage to some of his critics has been catastrophic. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who broke with King to explore legislation for DREAMers last year, lost his primary in VIrginia to a tea party insurgent, David Brat, who ran against “amnesty.” Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who started 2013 arguably as the party’s presidential frontrunner, tumbled in the polls after shepherding the Senate immigration bill and has since regressed to an enforcement-first approach.

Meanwhile, immigration reform advocates spent much of the last two years trying to make King politically radioactive only to watch in horror as the party has moved closer and closer to his hardline position. 

"We think he’s had a pretty big influence on how the GOP has continued to talk about immigrants,” Erika Andiola, a prominent DREAMer activist who confronted King at an event with Rand Paul last year, told reporters on Thursday. 

This week, DREAMers are coming to Des Moines from four states to protest the event and remind Republicans of Romney’s disastrous showing with Latinos after adopting a similar enforcement-only approach. Hispanic voters favored President Obama by a margin of 71-29 percent over Romney in the 2012 election, helping the president carry key swing states including Florida, Nevada and Colorado.

"If the GOP wants to win in 2016, then they’re going to make sure they stay as far away as possible from Steve King."'

“If the GOP wants to win in 2016, then they’re going to make sure they stay as far away as possible from Steve King,” Andiola said.

None of King’s measures are likely to become law any time soon, but they’ve lashed his party to his hardline position and it’s difficult to see how the GOP escapes. Some Republicans are even urging candidates like Bush, a former Florida governor and longtime immigration reform supporter, to skip the Iowa caucuses altogether rather than risk getting bullied to the right by King.

“It’s tough to take positions in Iowa that don’t play as well in New Hampshire. So some candidates may just say, ‘hey, we’ll skip it and move on,’” Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the Republican cosponsors of the Senate’s 2013 immigration bill, told The Daily Beast last month. “And frankly a lot of Republicans appreciate those who come there and say, I’m sorry, I just don’t agree with Steve King.”

Bush, according to Iowa GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann, called to ask him this week about locating voters in Latino-heavy parts of the state. Should Bush take the plunge, Iowa Republicans warn that King cannot be easily ignored.

“He’s certainly a key player,” Republican committeeman Steve Scheffler told msnbc. 

“On the grassroots conservative side I think he has a tremendous amount of influence,” Sam Clovis, a friend of King’s who ran for Iowa state treasurer in 2014, told msnbc. “I look at what he does as very important. I think Steve’s objective – and I don’t want to put words in his mouth -- is to help shape the Republican agenda.”

By King’s account, he’s merely the messenger for widespread conservative unease with the idea of legal status for undocumented immigrants.

“I don't think I need to produce a set of guardrails,” King said when asked whether he planned to apply the same pressure to presidential candidates. “I think the engagement of the activists will perform that particular utility.”

That said, he’s certainly been among the most vocal in rallying that particular wing of the party either through flamboyant statements – just this week he called Michelle Obama’s DREAMer State of the Union guest “a deportable” – or calls to legislative action.

King may not be ready to directly grill candidates on immigration for now, but he did have some unsolicited advice for a certain undeclared candidate should they decide Iowa might not be worth the trouble.

“I would say to Jeb Bush that, since Ronald Reagan, no one has ascended to the presidency as a Republican without first winning the Ames straw poll and the Iowa caucus,” he said, referring to Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush and brother, George W. Bush. “If you can’t sell your positions in Iowa, what’s the argument as to where you can?" 

MSNBC's Amanda Sakuma contributed to this report.