MIAMI -- With three little words, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush set off a fury this week that served as a potent reminder of how difficult the immigration issue remains for his possible presidential ambitions and the Republican Party.
An early GOP establishment favorite, Bush has long urged his fellow Republicans to show more compassion for those who enter the country illegally. But when he described illegal immigration in an interview as an "act of love" by people hoping to provide for their families, the backlash from his own party was swift and stinging.
Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, accused Bush of "pandering." Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and House Speaker John Boehner said the country should enforce the "rule of law." And conservative commentator Michelle Malkin created a new Twitter hashtag: #CancelJebBush.
Some of the party's most powerful insiders and financiers are concerned immigration could define the coming nominating contest in the way it did in 2012. Like Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was jeered when he implied that his rivals were heartless if they opposed a law that lets some children of undocumented immigrants pay in-state tuition at public colleges.
The nominee, Mitt Romney, took a hard line and advocated "self-deportation" for those here illegally. He won just 27 percent of the Latino vote, the lowest portion for a Republican in 16 years.
"The worst thing that can happen to a political party is not for voters to decide they don't like you," said Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant and former Romney adviser. "It's for voters to decide you don't like them, and that's where the Republican Party is right now."
The Republican National Committee has urged the GOP to embrace an immigration overhaul, but comprehensive legislation remains stalled in Congress. Action is unlikely in an election year with high stakes. All 435 House seats, and 36 in the Senate, are on state ballots. Republicans need to gain only six Senate seats to win majority control from Democrats.
The political calculus makes the GOP's core base of voters critical, so House Republicans want to avoid an immigration fight that could alienate them. But some establishment Republicans say the delay threatens the long-term future of the GOP.