Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado donned his bulletproof vest last year and hit the campaign trail expressly to get his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination - and the voters - to make illegal immigration a real, rather than rhetorical, priority.
He says he failed.
And he doesn’t trust Democratic Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton or even presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain to do the right thing on immigration once one of them moves into the Oval Office.
“Nobody’s going to enter the White House in January of ‘09 who is committed to securing the border and ending the disaster of illegal immigration,” said Mr. Tancredo, who wears the vest when he feels insecure about the enemies he has made over the years while touting his anti-illegals stance.
“Therefore, the next stage in the battle is going to be in the states,” he said.
So, Mr. Tancredo is leaving the halls of Congress to join the front lines, possibly with either a new or established advocacy group, and promote court-tested efforts states and localities have adopted to address the strain illegal immigration has put on the educational systems, social services and law enforcement.
“We will have to see if we can replicate Arizona and Oklahoma in other states because that’s what states and localities do whenever the federal government walks away from its responsibility,” said Mr. Tancredo, who is not seeking a sixth term.
Mr. Tancredo’s distrust of Mr. McCain on questions such as amnesty for illegal immigrants - which each man interprets differently - is so deep that he is not sure he will vote for the presumptive Republican nominee in November.
“Maybe I’ll write me in - who knows?” he said. “When I’m in the voting booth, I’m going to just be tussling with this in my own heart.”
The distance between the two men, as Mr. Tancredo sees it, is even more evident when he is pressed as to whether they can come to an agreement that would allow Mr. Tancredo to endorse the senator from Arizona and thus stir reluctant conservatives to work for his election in November.
“There is absolutely nothing I can say that would not destroy my credibility or that he could accept that wouldn’t destroy his,” Mr. Tancredo said. “I cannot offer anything that he could accept.
Mr. Tancredo said Mr. McCain is the last of 10 Republican presidential candidates standing because he and the other eight didn’t provide the leadership voters desired.
“Frankly, I don’t see myself as this great leader, as capable as Ronald Reagan,” he said. “I know I’m not. So I can’t ask people to see something in me that I don’t see in myself.”
Even as a southbound economy dries up jobs for illegal immigrants, Mr. Tancredo’s hallmark issue is likely to remain one of the most bitterly emotional concerns dividing the nation.
Opponents who thought he had too much power over immigration policy were snarling “Nazi” and “racist” at him well before entered the Republican nomination battle.
By the Columbus Day Parade in Denver three years ago, epithets were the least of his worries.
He recalled a Denver plainclothes police officer saying, “Congressman, are you aware of the threats on your life here today?”
” ‘More than usual?’ ” Mr. Tancredo asked.
The officer read aloud from his notebook what people were overhead saying about “whacking” Mr. Tancredo that day. More alarming, a parade-route sweep had turned up high-powered rifle ammo taped inside a trash can.
The officer suggested that Mr. Tancredo not ride atop a float but walk the parade route surrounded by eight policemen instead. Along the route, however, he recalled seeing a young woman holding up her baby’s hand “and she has the baby flip me off.”
After that day, the Capitol Police, whose job is to protect members of Congress while in Washington, began showing up now and then at Tancredo speeches across the country.
Eventually he bought a “really good” bulletproof vest on the Internet and wears it when he thinks he needs it.
Mr. Tancredo’s decision to quit the presidential nomination race seemed right at the time.
He was in his hotel room at 11 p.m. on Dec. 20 when he saw former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a one-time advocate of giving sanctuary to illegals and the last of the candidates to adopt a border-security-first approach to the issue, promise in a spot commercial to secure the border and build a fence.
Mr. Tancredo immediately phoned campaign manager Bay Buchanan and said, “You can pull the plug on my campaign. The last domino just fell. Everybody’s come the distance.”
Since then, however, it is not clear whether the impact of Mr. Tancredo’s 11-month presidential nomination campaign has left him as an immigration hero or zero.
“The issue has been elevated to a place it hadn’t been before, but I will also be the first to admit, it has now begun to fall,” he said. “I’m sorry if that’s the result of my getting out of the race.”
“I don’t know that I have that much power over the issue,” Mr. Tancredo said. “I don’t know whether, if I had stayed in the race, it would still be up there at one or two, which is where it was. Now it’s down to three or four. I just don’t know.”