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Rand Paul escapes trap set by immigration activists. But what about 2016?

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Charlie Neibergall/AP

(Read caption) Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is greeted by local Republicans before speaking at a gathering for local candidates Tuesday in Hiawatha, Iowa.

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It was a type of confrontation we may see often as the 2014 elections get closer: a Republican politician who has taken a hard line on immigration arguing with an undocumented immigrant and activist.

Monday’s public argument involved Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, one of the House’s fiercest critics of President Obama’s immigration policies. At a fundraiser in Okoboji, Iowa, Representative King suddenly found himself face-to-face with self-identified "DREAMers," undocumented young people who have benefited from Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, which allows them to legally stay in the country.

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What followed was an odd and stilted conversation. It was in many ways a metaphor for the overall Republican dilemma on the issue – not so much for what King said, as for what his seatmate, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky did. More on that in a moment.

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It began with DREAMer Erika Andiola handing King a card while he ate. It was her DACA card, her documentation that gives her quasi-legal status. She invited King to tear it up.

“I know you want to get rid of DACAs,” Ms. Andiola said. “I want to give you the opportunity, if you really want to get rid of it.”

King did not tear up the card. He tried to explain that he supported a bill in the House to end DACA because among other things he believes it provides a portal for drug smuggling. Last year, he said that for every DREAMer who does well in school, “there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they have calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

Andiola accused King of name-calling, perhaps in reference to this past comment. King wondered aloud if Andiola was going to say she was a drug smuggler. Andiola asked if she looked like a drug smuggler.

“You can tell me,” King said.

“I’m not a drug smuggler, of course not. I graduated from Arizona State University. I have my master’s degree,” said Andiola.

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The young woman said that she came to the US from Mexico with her mother when she was 11, and that she’s lived here 17 years. Her mom was escaping an abusive relationship, Andiola said. King said he was sorry she came from a lawless country and asked her to “please not erode the rule of law in America.”

King’s own fortunes won’t be hurt by this. His views are well-known and have not prevented his reelection in his Iowa district. In that sense the DREAMers did indeed pick an easy target for a stunt.

But what of Senator Paul? He was eating a burger right next to King when the activists arrived. He shook their hands, took a bite, then fled, as if he’d forgotten that he’d promised to be somewhere else, like another state.

As a 2016 hopeful, Paul stands to lose much more from an argument about immigration than does King. The national GOP wants some sort of immigration compromise so that they can put the issue behind them and work on attracting Hispanic votes. The House GOP hardliners see that as a sellout and have worked to prevent compromises legislation passing the Congress.

Thus Paul’s walkabout, which spurred much jocularity on social media, but is also a visual manifestation of a tough political problem.

“The awkward scene was a visual reminder of the political tightrope Paul is trying to walk as he woos the tea-party base of the GOP, raising money for a conservative firebrand like King, at the same time he pitches an inclusionary message of a Republican Party that he says must expand its appeal to win future national elections,” writes National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher.