WASHINGTON — As night settles over the Capitol, Tom Tancredo is seated in his congressional office, smoking a fat cigar and nursing a plastic tumbler of scotch.
The president is unhappy with him, the Colorado Republican says. So are GOP House leaders. One congressman, a California Republican who wants Tancredo run out of the party, is badmouthing him all over town. Tancredo exhales a billow of blue smoke.
Life is good.
With Congress weighing the toughest border security bill in years, the four-term House member from suburban Denver has emerged as the GOP's most prominent voice on immigration -- the one "to place our goal posts," as he puts it.
He has done so with a blow-torch persona and uncompromising stance that pays no mind to party labels or diplomatic niceties, international or otherwise. His forum is talk radio, the political press and the food-fight shows on cable TV, which feast on each deliciously provocative morsel:
President Bush is a hypocrite on border issues. Republicans shill for big business. If Islamic terrorists attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons, we should bomb Mecca.
To critics, Tancredo is a hatemonger and mean-spirited demagogue. To supporters, he is a rare politician with the spine to speak his mind (and theirs as well). Either way, his talk of militarizing the border and hunting down and deporting millions of illegal immigrants has complicated White House efforts to put a friendlier face on the GOP and court Latino votes. That explains why so many of Tancredo's enemies are fellow Republicans.
"Party I couldn't care less about," he says. "If it gets hurt by this, it deserves to be hurt."
Tancredo -- pronounced Tan-CRAY-dough -- is even pondering a run for president in 2008. Not to win -- he doesn't kid himself -- but to put illegal immigration front and center, even if that drives a wedge further in the GOP.
"There are times when being in the minority looks better to me," he says. "You can certainly be closer to your own principles. Maybe that's what this party needs is to get kicked in the butt."
So far Tancredo has traveled to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- three early voting states -- imploring voters to press each presidential candidate on immigration and "not let them equivocate."
Last month, in another bit of heresy, he campaigned for independent Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman freelance border patrol, in his unsuccessful congressional run against Orange County Republican John Campbell.
The crowd of 125 or so in Newport Beach booed and hissed the president when Tancredo recounted Bush's condemnation of the Minuteman Project. The same day that Bush had criticized the citizen patrol, Tancredo was on the Arizona-Mexico border praising its heroism.
"Needless to say, I am not on the guest list at the White House," he said merrily.
Tancredo dates his interest in immigration to his years as a teacher dealing with bilingual education. "It was far more political than educational," says Tancredo, the grandson of Italian immigrants. He suggests that today's newcomers are more likely to segregate themselves as "some hyphenated something or other" than try to assimilate.
He sees his work on immigration as part of a larger fight to save Western civilization from a "cult of multiculturalism" that threatens to cleave the country into ethnic fiefs.
"It's of no consequence to me where you're from," he says, shouting over the roar of the Orange County crowd. "All that I ask of you is that when you get here, you become an American!"
To some, that talk is not just ugly but wrong, suggesting that the aspirations of today's immigrants are somehow different and less noble than, say, those of Tancredo's grandparents.
Nobody likes illegality or wants to hurt the economy or "undermine the American way of life," says Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. But Tancredo's punitive approach is not a solution, she says; it hurts Republicans by casting the party "as unrealistic and anti-immigrant."
Tancredo's stance on border security is all stick, no carrot. He favors tougher policing, stiffer penalties for employers hiring illegal workers, and changes in federal law so the children of illegal immigrants are not automatic U.S. citizens.
He says a guest-worker program, the heart of Bush's approach, should be considered -- skeptically -- only after the borders are sealed and the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the country have been sent home. Anything less amounts to amnesty for criminals, Tancredo says.
His foes may wish to marginalize him; most willing to be quoted for this article insist that Tancredo is irrelevant to the immigration debate. Still, he has forced Congress to move his way. The immigration bill that recently passed the House was stripped of language supporting a guest-worker program, after a Tancredo-led revolt.