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Former Romney Campaign Manager Shares Lessons On Immigration Rhetoric

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The issue of immigration highlighted some real differences between the candidates at last night's Republican debate in Milwaukee. The main question - what to do about undocumented immigrants already here in the U.S.? Here's Donald Trump last night at that Fox Business Network debate.

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DONALD TRUMP: They're going to have to go out, and they'll come back. But they're going to have to go out, and hopefully they get back. But we have no choice if we're going to run our country properly and if we're going to be a country.

CORNISH: And here's Jeb Bush.

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JEB BUSH: Twelve million illegal immigrants, to send them back 500,000 a month, is just not possible, and it's not embracing American values.

CORNISH: This isn't the first election cycle where the GOP has struggled with the subject. Critics claim Mitt Romney alienated voters in his 2012 campaign by talking about self-deportation and decrying amnesty. Katie Packer was Romney's deputy campaign manager. She's written about immigration and studied it as a political consultant. I asked her where her party is right now.

KATIE PACKER: What we found with early state Republican primary voters in all four of the early states is the majority of those voters do support a reasonable plan to get those folks to have legal status in this country. There are, you know, restrictions that they're looking for, things like E-Verify, learning the English language, all of those sort of reasonable steps. But a majority of Republican primary voters are not where Donald Trump is.

CORNISH: So why do you think there's still that lean from candidates to respond to the element of the primary voter that wants a very hard line on immigration? Why is that still a very appealing, I guess, method?

PACKER: Well, I don't think it is very appealing, and I don't - I think you see Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush - I think even Carly Fiorina, certainly John Kasich - are talking in terms of reasonable proposals. And the ones that are talking in that harsh rhetoric are really fishing from a very small pond that Donald Trump already kind of owns. And so what I would advise our candidates to do is fish from the pond where, you know, 75 to 80 percent of the Republican primary voters are swimming.

CORNISH: Put us inside the head of a campaign manager. Once you've sort of sent out that blast of emails that says my candidate won...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...How are you spending the next couple of days?

PACKER: We'll be spending a lot of time talking to donors in these 24, 48 hours after the campaign. It's really about sort of translating that message from the debate and the performance at the debate into dollars, you know, that will help you, you know, to promote your message.

CORNISH: So you mean advertising?

PACKER: Yes. I wouldn't be surprised if we see some, you know, national Fox News ad buys from campaigns over the next couple of weeks to get some of these guys that are, you know, hovering in that 2 percent range up over the humps so that they can be sure to be on the stage at the Las Vegas debate.

CORNISH: Again, comparing back to 2012 and looking at things today, how significant are debates? At the end of the day, does it really still matter much more about your ground game, say, in an Iowa or a New Hampshire in a time when people are, I guess, spending so much effort looking at national polls where name recognition is the reward?

PACKER: Well, ground game is certainly important, but I like to say you can have the most flashy-looking, fancy Ford pickup truck in the world, but if what the voters are looking for is a Chevy Camaro, then the best advertising campaign, the best, you know, sort of sales campaign in the world isn't going to sell that pickup.

So you can have a lot of money and have a lot of boots on the ground that you're paying for, but if the candidate just isn't picking up steam and the voters aren't responding, then again, you know, that's something that's sort of irrelevant.

CORNISH: What are you going to be looking for in the coming weeks between now and the next debate?

PACKER: I think we will start to see some of these more significant donors breaking for one candidate or another. I also think it's really time for some of these candidates who have just sort of floated down there at one and 2 percent now for months on end to really take a look and say, maybe the voters just aren't that into you.

(LAUGHTER)

PACKER: And it might be time to, you know, kind of switch gears and think about another future for the next four years and...

CORNISH: To call it officially.

PACKER: Exactly.

CORNISH: Katie Packer, thanks so much for coming in to speak with us.

PACKER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Katie Packer is a Republican political consultant with Burning Glass Consulting. She was also Mitt Romney's deputy campaign manager in 2012. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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