Tancredo's Single-Issue Victory

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M. Spencer Green / AP

Tom Tancredo leaves the podium after announcing that he will withdraw from the 2008 presidential race and throw his support behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Matt Johnson was driving to Tom Tancredo's offices in the Des Moines suburbs when he heard that his favorite candidate was dropping out of the race. "I'm going, 'What the heck? Jeez!'" said Johnson, standing in front of Tancredo's locked and already empty offices. Johnson had been on the last leg of the 90-minute drive from his home in Creston when he heard Tancredo's statement live on the radio. "I wanted to volunteer," said Johnson. "Oh, well."

Like most Tancredo supporters — and admittedly, it was an exclusive club; the Colorado Congressman garnered just 3% in the latest Insider Advantage poll of likely G.O.P. Iowa caucus-goers — Johnson liked Tancredo's stance on illegal immigration. "He represents a lot of what Americans believe," Johnson said.

Tancredo was always a self-professed one-issue candidate. And far from being disappointed at his meager poll showings, Tancredo says he achieved more in this election cycle than he dreamt possible. In part due to his cage-rattling, immigration is one of the biggest issues in the race, on both sides of the aisle.

True to his single-issue focus, Tancredo chose to throw his support behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney out of a mixture of agreement and spite. Romney, "has actually got a record," said Tancredo. "He was governor of a liberal state but opposed drivers licenses for illegal immigrants and instate tuition for illegal immigrants… at a time when they weren't issues on the national scene." As for why the endorsement came now, Tancredo admitted he hoped to hurt the chances of rivals Mike Huckabee and John McCain — both of whom he views as weak on immigration. "It was the rise of Huckabee in Iowa, that's what really was disconcerting, and McCain in New Hampshire." (The McCain campaign declined comment, while Huckabee spokeswoman Charmaine Yoest replied: "The governor has a really strong and tough stand on immigration... and in the days ahead we're looking forward to talking with voters in Iowa about how he sees the need for change.")

Immigration was thrown into the spotlight last year when President George W. Bush moved to create a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal aliens living in the U.S. while shoring up border security and overhauling the naturalization and visa processes. House Republicans, with Tancredo leading the charge, blocked the plan. They accused Bush of seeking to grant sweeping amnesty. McCain, with a handful of Senate Republicans, backed the President's plan.

In debates, forums and in his own campaigning, Tancredo kept pressure on the issue, railing against Republicans and Democrats alike for not doing enough to secure U.S. borders, even after Congress passed legislation to build a 700-mile border fence that some experts say could cost as much as $50 billion. (So far, less than $5 billion has actually been appropriated for the project).

Tancredo said he surpassed his own goals of raising awareness on the issue, "frankly to an extent that was beyond my greatest expectations… Every Republican candidate — even John McCain is now saying he was on the wrong side of the issue — has got the basics. You've got Rudy Giuliani running ads talking about securing the border. On the basics we've got 'em."

By basics Tancredo means forcing all illegal immigrants to go home and reapply to enter the country legally if they want to return, making English the national language and denying municipal services for illegal aliens such as driver's licenses, Social Security benefits and state-subsidized education. Huckabee has come under particular fire for backing college-level grants for the children of illegal immigrants in Arkansas. "We are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," said Huckabee, defending his stance, in a Florida debate last month.

When asked if he would follow Tancredo's endorsement and support Romney, Johnson said he'd be more inclined to support California Congressman Duncan Hunter, another dark horse candidate who's tough on immigration. "I don't like Romney," Johnson said, before driving off in his dusty grey sedan.

"God Bless him," said Tancredo said of his last would-be volunteer. "Duncan Hunter is a great guy. Duncan Hunter doesn't have a chance. I have better numbers than Duncan. One of the reasons I'm endorsing Romney is he can go the distance."

Tancredo has announced he is also not running for reelection for his Congressional seat. His immediate plans, he said, are to hang out with his grandkids, stump for Romney and finish his last year in office. After that, who knows? Romney may one day need to appoint a head of Immigration and Naturalization Services.