CHAPIN, S.C. — If not for immigration, Sen. Marco Rubio might be running away with the Republican presidential primary, where a number of voters say they like everything else the first-term senator has to say, but can’t get beyond his record on supporting citizenship rights for illegal immigrants.
The irony is that Republicans overall are slowly shifting to a more liberal stance on immigration — but that has yet to carry over to the primary, where the first two contests were won by the most strident foes of illegal immigration.
Iowa gave its nod to Sen. Ted Cruz and second place to Donald Trump, who ignited the issue in June when he vowed to build a border wall. New Hampshire gave Mr. Trump first place, and Mr. Cruz came in third.
Mr. Rubio, by contrast, placed third in Iowa and struggled to a fifth-place showing in New Hampshire. With South Carolina’s primary Saturday, Mr. Rubio is trying to overcome nagging immigration questions once again.
“I’m kind of leaning more toward Cruz because of immigration — more so than Rubio,” said Amanda Lacey, 38, who was candidate shopping this week, and came out to hear Mr. Rubio at a rally Wednesday in Chapin. “Rubio, it kind of seems like he’s more lenient on keeping them here. Other than that, I kind of like and agree with most of what Rubio stands for.”
It’s a refrain voters said as they went into the polls in New Hampshire and as they search for candidates in South Carolina.
Immigration has long been a problem between Republican politicians and voters, who have been at odds since President George W. Bush promised to try to legalize illegal immigrants and made it an early part of his 2004 re-election plan — only to quickly shelve it when he saw the effect it had on Republican voters’ morale.
In the decade since, little has changed. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was from the Bush camp in supporting legalization, struggled with Republicans when he was the nominee in 2008. Four years later, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney went the other direction, proposing the toughest crackdown of any Republican nominee in modern history. Hispanic voters fled in the general election, costing him the chance to unseat President Obama.
As the Republican Party tries to pick its nominee this year, it remains riven, with Mr. Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush saying illegal immigrants should eventually get legal status. Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz oppose that, and their standings have risen.
“We’re going to have the wall,” Mr. Trump said at a rally in Gaffney on Thursday, drawing yet another ovation for his plan to construct more fencing on the southwestern border and force Mexico to pay for it.
Given the amount of attention it gets on the campaign trail, it would seem that immigration is an overriding issue for Republican voters.
But polling in Iowa and New Hampshire found that wasn’t the case. Of those heading into the caucuses in Iowa, just 13 percent picked it as their top concern, according to entrance polling. Only 15 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters picked immigration as their issue that mattered most — the smallest of the four options given.
Like the rest of the country, Republican voters are increasingly open to a more lenient approach. In 2008, 50 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters said illegal immigrants should be deported. This year, that number has dropped to 41 percent, with 56 percent saying illegal immigrants should be given a chance at legal status.
The difficulty for the Republican Party is that the intensity is on the crackdown side — meaning those who support legalization are less likely to rate illegal immigration their top issue.
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America’s Voice Education Fund, said Republicans are trapping themselves as the candidates move toward an enforcement-first stance.
“We’re getting a lot of ‘Not now, let’s do more enforcement, and let’s talk about these people in a really angry way because our primary electorate is angry.’ But the miscalculation was Republicans thought this was going to be a big issue. It’s not a big issue in terms of primary voters, but it will be a big issue in the general election and it will work against them,” she said.
Mr. Rubio hoped to overcome that.
He was elected to the Senate in 2010 on a promise that he wouldn’t pursue legalization, saying it was amnesty to put illegal immigrants in line for citizenship. But by 2013, his stance evolved, and he was part of the “Gang of Eight” senators who wrote a bill that granted quick legal status and a longer-term path to citizenship for 7 million to 8 million illegal immigrants.
The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support after some Republicans insisted that the sponsors, including Mr. Rubio, double the size of the Border Patrol and build hundreds of miles of additional fencing.
But rank-and-file House Republicans balked, saying they still didn’t like the plan and didn’t trust Mr. Obama to follow through on the stiffer security and enforcement.
Mr. Rubio says the lesson he learned from the fight was that voters want to see security first. It’s the same lesson Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama indicated they learned after fights in 2006 and 2007.
“People won’t support a comprehensive approach to immigration. It’s now been tried three times in the last decade. It has failed each time,” Mr. Rubio said in a town hall hosted by CNN this week.
Voters aren’t yet sold on Mr. Rubio’s explanations.
“I liked Rubio until he joined the Gang of Eight and all that stuff,” Mike Bloomer, 45, said as he voted last week in New Hampshire. “He was out. He was absolutely out.”
Mr. Bloomer voted instead for Mr. Cruz.
Likewise Frank McGrath, 46, of Londonderry, New Hampshire, who decided on election day to back Mr. Cruz over Mr. Rubio, said the Texan wavered less than the senator from Florida, particularly on immigration.
Mr. Cruz is trying his best to capitalize on the issue. His campaign released an ad this week juxtaposing video of Mr. Rubio and Mr. Obama using the same language to defend the 2013 bill. At the end of the ad, Mr. Rubio’s face is transformed into the red and blue hues of the famous Obama 2008 “Hope” campaign poster.
Some voters in South Carolina wave away questions about immigration, saying it wasn’t important one way or another. Others gave Mr. Rubio credit for trying, even if they don’t like where the bill went.
“I wish he had never gotten involved with the Gang of Eight,” said Michael Duduit, attending a Rubio rally in Anderson on Thursday. “But I also recognize that it’s going to be necessary to do something to legalize 12 million undocumented immigrants who are here now, and I think Rubio is more likely to work for a solution rather than simply play it for rhetoric.”
Immigration is also playing out in the Democratic primary, only in reverse. Where Republican candidates talk about the need to stiffen enforcement, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders are sparring over who would grant legal status to more illegal immigrants.
With the Hispanic-heavy Democratic caucuses in Nevada on Saturday, the same day Republicans vote in South Carolina, the issue is getting a hearing.
A group of Dreamers, who are young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, are staging a major push to back Mr. Sanders, questioning Mrs. Clinton’s commitment to the issue. She voted for the border fence as a senator, and in 2014, when a surge of illegal immigrant children hit its peak, she said they should be quickly returned home.
Both stances angered Hispanic leaders.
But Mrs. Clinton’s backers say Mr. Sanders isn’t pure on the immigration issue. He voted against a 2006 legalization bill and voted to cut the Diversity Visa Lottery, which doles out green cards on the basis of chance.
Mr. Sanders said he voted against the 2006 bill not because of legalization, but because of the guest worker program included in the legislation, which he — and a host of other prominent Hispanic and labor advocates — said treated would-be immigrants unfairly and was merely a source of union-busting cheap labor for corporations.