LITTLETON, Colo. - It was little surprise when freshman Republican Rep. Mike Coffman in 2010 voted against a bill to grant citizenship to some young illegal immigrants. After all, the Marine Corps veteran had just won the seat in Congress formerly held by firebrand Rep. Tom Tancredo, who had pushed the GOP to take a harsher stance against illegal immigration.
The bill, known as the DREAM Act, died in the Senate.
Now Coffman has changed course. He has introduced legislation to let unauthorized immigrants brought into the country as children earn citizenship if they serve in the military. And he spoke hopefully about an immigration overhaul that a bipartisan group of senators outlined last week.
Since the November elections, many other Republicans nationwide have tempered their tone on immigration - if not reversed course completely - after years of tacking right to appeal to grass-roots activists who dominate GOP primaries.
On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor became the latest high-profile Republican to shift gears. A leader of the conservative caucus and previous opponent of the DREAM Act, Cantor called for allowing illegal immigrants brought here as children to become citizens.
Coffman won re-election by only 2 points and is a top target for Democrats next year. But Coffman says his change of heart is personal: He met a constituent who served as a Marine and lost his legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. The man was a Canadian immigrant who became a citizen, and his brother joined the military and became a citizen, too. Coffman also recalls a former Spanish tutor telling him about the lack of opportunity for young illegal immigrants.
"For young people who grew up in this country, and don't know another country, to not be able to serve in the military..." Coffman said, trailing off. He said the broader overhaul "seems to be moving in the right direction."
All this suggests that the Republican Party seems to have gotten the message after its shellacking last fall, though it is still unclear whether softer stances will translate into broad enough support for an overhaul that includes a pathway to citizenship for the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won only 27 percent support from Hispanics and even less from Asians. And an AP-GFK poll last month showed 62 percent of voters want to let otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants eventually become citizens, up 12 percentage points from 2010.
During the GOP presidential primaries, Romney wooed the party's right flank by echoing their rhetoric on immigration and advocating "self-deportation," or making life in the U.S. so miserable for illegal immigrants they would voluntarily return home. His campaign staff later said they regretted the sharp turn because it alienated minority voters.
Now Republicans are trying to get them back. "All of their campaign consultants are telling them that the end is near if they don't change," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates tighter immigration restrictions. He added that Republicans have long-favored a narrower version of the DREAM Act - formally, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act - which would legalize the status of people brought here illegally as children who graduate from college or serve in the military.
The shift has been particularly dramatic in the West, where the most recent wave of illegal immigration began in the 1990s and the GOP's tough response helped drive Hispanic votes to newly ascendant Democrats.
In California, a handful of GOP state legislators joined Democratic colleagues at a news conference last week to back a pathway to citizenship in any immigration overhaul. In Nevada, where immigrant votes have given Democrats a lopsided edge in recent elections, the state Republican Party last week endorsed legalizing the status of unauthorized immigrants.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain is now one of eight senators pushing for an overhaul, along with Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. McCain had co-sponsored an immigration overhaul that died in 2005, but he disowned the plan while running for president in 2008, and he ran an ad in his 2010 Senate campaign calling for completion of the "danged fence" on the Mexican border.
Colorado, where Hispanics comprised 14 percent of the electorate in November, was solidly red at the beginning of the past decade, when Republicans pushed aggressive measures against illegal immigrants and some Democrats joined them. Since then, the state has twice helped elect President Barack Obama, and Democrats have controlled the state Legislature for three of the last four elections. Hispanics also helped defeat tea party favorite Ken Buck in his 2010 challenge of Sen. Michael Bennet.
Now Buck, well-known for aggressive enforcement of immigration laws as Weld County district attorney, has joined The Colorado Compact, a coalition of politicians, business and community groups that backs a "sensible path forward" for some illegal immigrants.
After years of blocking in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at state colleges and universities, some Republican state lawmakers have decided to support the measure. And congressmen like Coffman are taking a warmer stance toward the idea of a broader immigration overhaul - though it remains uncertain whether they will ultimately vote for citizenship for most illegal immigrants, the goal of immigration rights activists and Obama.
Colorado State Sen. Greg Brophy has kept quiet as he's voted against in-state tuition in recent years. He's been thinking of the high school students he meets in his rural district who are bright, ambitious and here without authorization. Now he supports it. "It tugs at your heart," Brophy said. "I'm positive I'm not alone in it, given the emails I've gotten."
Immigration advocates are heartened.
"There's a sea change that's happening in our politics," Bennet, who worked on the latest bipartisan immigration proposal, said last week in Denver. "Republicans and Democrats alike believe that big numbers of people in this country want to get this finished."
Even so, Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, one of the state's few GOP stars, balks at the idea of citizenship, though he speaks forcefully about the need to appeal to minorities.
He said Congress must first secure the border before discussing citizenship. "If you address that first, we can have a conversation down the road."