Q&A: Tom Tancredo on How He Changed the Presidential Race

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Jocelyn Augustino / Redux

Former Republican Presidential hopeful Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO)

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo announced last week that he was withdrawing from the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Right after that surprising announcement in Des Moines, he sat down with TIME to reflect on the impact he's had on the race and how he hopes to continue exert influence with his endorsement of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Excerpts:

TIME: What impact has your candidacy had on the race?
The thing that got me into the race was the issue of illegal immigration and a much bigger picture of the society, of the culture itself and what was happening to it with the Balkanization of America, the bilinguilization of America; the things that are pulling us apart... instead of pulling us together, the lack of assimilation that's occurring among the people who are coming here. All these things that I felt were of major importance to the nation and I felt that no one else was addressing. So I entered the race. And I knew from day one that my chances were slim to none but the purpose was to advance a set of ideas and you know, really, I have to tell you I have achieved those goals and done so frankly to an extent that's beyond my greatest expectations.

Can you quantify that impact?
You've got every Republican candidate now — you know you've got [Arizona Senator]John McCain even now saying that that was the biggest mistake he ever made was taking the wrong side of this issue. You've got [former New York City Mayor] Rudy Giuliani running ads talking about securing the border. Every candidate has now come up with a plan and they'd all secure the borders, go after illegal immigration and crack down on employers. They all have the basics now...
And we have the Democrats now talking. I mean look at what happened to [New York Senator Hillary Clinton] when she... tried to address the issue of [New York Governor Eliot] Spitzer's trying to give illegal immigrants drivers licenses and it cost her severely. It cost her in the polls and it cost him: he had to withdraw the proposal. And none of these things would've ever have happened six months ago. Now is it just because of Tom Tancredo? No, but it's because I really was given a megaphone by being on the stage at that level and what you do is you energize all kinds of people that are out there and feel the same way and never had an outlet for it and now they do. So I feel very very good about that.

You've also decided to resign your Congressional seat next year. Why?
I chose not to run again after it became apparent that there was nothing more that I could do. The issue had taken a life of it's own. I'd been talking about it for 10 years and I'd been looking for supporters and now they're all over the place. We passed, gosh, all kinds of things. A lot of them got taken out in the [$555 billion omnibus spending bill sent to the President in mid-December], but the House passed a whole slug of things that were just incredible... I have succeeded beyond my wildest expectations and then it comes to a point where: what more can you do? And I felt that way in Congress, you know, what more can I do? So I announced that I wasn't going to run again. Well, I feel that there is nothing more to do in this race. I can't win it, certainly there's no way I could've won the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primaries. Essentially the issue got taken away from me but it is okay. So at that point it just seems prudent to end it and be done.

Why Romney?
Well, I had to set up criteria and that was: First, where are they on these basic issues? The border itself: will you secure it with a fence and whatever kind of resources that we have? No. 2: will you go after employers? Because that's the real magnet that pulls so many people here. Will you not give amnesty? Will you say that if they're here that they will have to return home? Now, [Romney has] got a plan that gives them a little more latitude than I would have. It's still a good plan. You know he makes them apply for a card and if they get the card then they can stay here maybe another six months, until they get their affairs in order... That's fine. But then you must go home and you can apply and get in line to come to the United States....
All of them are saying the right stuff but he's actually got a record. He was the governor of a liberal state and he opposed driver's licenses for illegal aliens and in-state tuition for illegal aliens. Now that's in Massachusetts before this issue ever came up. Now, I don't know if he was thinking of running for president then but it wouldn't have mattered because the issue hadn't come up then, certainly not on the national scene.
So he's got a record and on the other hand, [former Arkansas Governor Mike] Huckabee's got one too and it's just the opposite. As Huckabee came up in the polls that certainly was a worry — like somebody shooting off a flare for us, you know be careful here. And you know you've got McCain coming up in the polls a bit, you've got Huckabee ahead and neither of them are any good on this issue. So the last thing you've got to consider on this issue is, ok [Tennessee Senator Fred] Thompson, he's a good guy, he's good on the issue but I don't think he's got a chance of winning the race. Huckabee he can go the distance. Romney he can go the distance, he's got brains. It's not everything I want, sure. That's never going to be the case — that you get everything that you want — but he's the best for the cause.

Describe to me when you first got interested in this issue?
Oh, man that goes back before I was in Congress, that goes back a long, long way. Maybe the first time was when I was in teaching in junior high in Jefferson County, Colorado. And Colorado passed a bilingual education bill and all of a sudden I started seeing kids getting taken out of classes and put into Spanish speaking classes even when they couldn't speak a word of Spanish themselves but their last name was Hispanic. So, they had a terrible time and I kept thinking "Where did this come from?" This was 1976, 30 years ago...
Well, we eventually found out that it was a political issue much more than an educational one and so eventually I ran for the State Legislature and won and started fighting the battle there and every year I would move to strike funding for bilingual education and as you do that you become involved with the issue a little more, a little more and you find that you learn more about it and as you do you become more distressed...
We desperately need to have things that hold us together as a country, certainly the language is one thing. And instead, we are doing all kinds of things that are spitting us up... Somebody's got to talk about this even if you're going to be called racist, a xenophobe and all the rest. Somebody's got to.

What's next for you?
Go to my grandkid's Christmas recital.... But beyond that I've got another year in Congress and beyond that I haven't the foggiest idea.