Michael Huckabee, who has impressively come up from behind among the Republican presidential candidates, now leads in Iowa. The former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher reaches new highs on likability when the other candidates don’t wear well.

Huckabee is credited with galvanizing the evangelical vote. He can draw Republicans to him. Yet, where the party goes on amnesty will define what kind of party the Republicans will become.

President Bush, after winning re-election in 2004, had his try at it but was unable to get intransigent parts of his party to follow his leadership. Keep in mind that Ronald Reagan was able to create new niches in the party after his amnesty program legalized nearly 3 million immigrants in 1986.

Big change, even reversal, is possible in the Republican Party. After all, pro-life televangelist Pat Robertson endorsed pro-choice Rudy Giuliani. Robertson said at the time combating terrorism was more important than concerns about abortion.

In light of that, Huckabee’s pragmatic approaches as governor in 2001 were tepid at worst. He opposed a state bill requiring proof of citizenship to vote and his administration pushed to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses.

In 2005, the same year that Huckabee was opposing a federal roundup of undocumented immigrants in his state, the Minuteman Project, co-founded by Jim Gilchrist, was mobilizing its public-relations sentries along the Arizona-Mexico border. The Minuteman Project had split into two groups that militantly opposed most forms of tolerance of unauthorized immigrants.

The Minuteman Project is now fractionated into different camps with extremists infiltrating or welcomed into their ranks.

Meanwhile, Huckabee has announced he now supports an immigration control plan that would expel 12 million people, albeit temporarily. And Jim Gilchrist has endorsed him for the Republican nomination.

In the next episode of this soap opera, the Minuteman Project’s ardent supporter, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo quit his quest for the nomination on Dec. 20. He was unable to gain more than a low single-figure percent in public-opinion polls. Dropping out, Tancredo endorsed Mitt Romney, saying, “He is the best hope for our cause.” Romney and Giuliani have previously exchanged barbs over who is soft on immigrants.

Romney’s hard line, according to the Rev. Luis Cortis, president of the evangelical group Esperanza USA, is driving the other presidential candidates to take intransigent positions. The heated rhetoric is mostly perceived as anti-Hispanic. If Romney becomes the Republican candidate, says Cortis. he’s going to lose every Hispanic vote.”

That’s not an exaggeration when you consider, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, over half of all Hispanic adults in the U.S. worry that a family member or a close friend could be deported.

The Huckabee public-opinion surge in Iowa could have been a healthy antidote and the beginning of a new style Republican coalition. After all, a winning Republican strategy requires the twofer Hispanic evangelicals. Instead, the primary campaign is turning into a siege on the GOP.

President Bush’s former speechwriter, Michael J. Gerson, wrote about the Huckabee endorsement, “Gilchrist is not just another voice on immigration. He is one of the most divisive figures in the most divisive debate in American politics.” Gerson noted Gilchrist had previously even made reference to insurrection and called for Bush’s impeachment for wanting immigration reform.

Is it any wonder that, if this keeps up, you can expect the same hooligans and extremists who took over much of the Minuteman Project to show their faces as the new Republicans. They are the same ones who mobilized to stop immigration reform when it had a chance in the U.S. Senate and why immigration reform is such an issue today.

It’s not a bad time to remember Henry Fonda’s line in the movie “12 Angry Men”: “Prejudice,” he said, “always obscures the truth.”

(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003) writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail

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