Jane Yoder Blankenship plants a grandmotherly kiss on Senator Marco Rubio’s cheek and then leans in to issue a warning.
“You be careful of Schumer and John McCain,” the 82-year-old retired guidance counselor says in hushed tones, referring to New York Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer and McCain, an Arizona Republican, who are teamed with Rubio on a revision of U.S. immigration laws.
“No, don’t worry,” Rubio, a Florida Republican, responds with a boyish grin. “They need to be careful of me.”
It’s a reassurance Rubio, 41, is having to give Republicans frequently these days, as the first-term senator and prospective 2016 presidential nominee takes a leading role promoting a bill that would provide 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally a way to gain citizenship.
His task is to persuade Republicans who have long opposed granting legal status to undocumented immigrants that doing so now is the proper course both practically and politically. To make his case credibly, Rubio must also reassure them that he’s an independent voice in the negotiations, willing to buck more senior Senate members who helped write the compromise package.
Rubio’s “conservative bona fides,” cultural background and rhetorical skills have elevated his role pitching the immigration measure “at a time when we need someone to clearly explain to a very difficult conservative constituency as to why this is in America’s best interest,” said Al Cardenas, the Washington-based American Conservative Union’s chairman. Together, they have rendered Rubio “the essential cog in the wheel if this thing is ever going to happen,” he said.
That carries risks for a politician with presidential ambitions, given that the Republican primary process provides outsized sway to activists who have been among those most ardently opposed to revising immigration laws.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted March 26-April 1 found Rubio was the presidential primary candidate of choice for 19 percent of Republicans and those who lean toward the party, beating out other prominent leaders including Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 vice presidential nominee.
“I’ve had my doubts about whether he’s all in or not, but I have to admit, the guy is gutsy,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of Democratic-leaning America’s Voice in Washington. “You could even say he’s risking his political career for the sake of immigration reform and the GOP’s future.”
Rubio has been telling Republican audiences that he knows he isn’t going to get a parade for becoming involved in the issue. That’s putting it mildly.
He’s drawing criticism nationally and in his home state from Republican activists and commentators who say he’s backing “amnesty.”
During Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign, “he shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said that he would never support any form of legalization,” said Jack Oliver, 63, a hospital worker from Stuart, Florida who braved pouring rain outside the Polish-American Club in Port St. Lucie to register his anger with Rubio at a May 1 protest. “Now he’s backtracking, trying to redefine what amnesty is, and that’s an insult to every American.”
Rubio also must manage concerns of friendly constituents, such as Blankenship, who say their rising star with an inspiring life story may be risking his shot at the White House and harming the Republican Party by throwing in his lot with the enemy.
In between appearances in Florida last week, Rubio said he’s too busy even to consider a 2016 run, yet he’s aware of the perils of tackling immigration.
“I get the same polls everybody else does,” he said in a May 1 interview in Lakeland, Florida. Still, he said it’s his obligation and a political imperative for his party to at least attempt to find a solution.
“This gives us an opportunity to show that we are a serious alternative to the left, and a serious alternative to the Democrats -- that we don’t have to be about blanket amnesty in order to solve the illegal immigration problem that we have,” Rubio said.
Conscious of the hostility from his party’s anti-immigration wing, he is emphasizing his desire to alter the compromise legislation -- slated for debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee beginning May 9 -- to tighten its border security and enforcement provisions to build public support.
His office unveiled a website April 17 to gather suggestions on how to “improve the bill.” In the weeks since, the more than 1,000 comments posted on it contain fewer proposed legislative fixes than exhortations for Rubio to desert the bill and stop backing “amnesty.”
Calling the legislation “a great starting point,” Rubio said in the interview that “people want to see a little bit more, and I think in order for the bill to actually become a law, we’re going to have to do a little more” on border security and enforcement.
In the meantime, the Miami-born son of Cuban immigrants whose youth, biography and rhetorical talents sometimes draw comparisons with President Barack Obama has taken on the task of selling the measure to core Republican supporters with almost masochistic relish.
He has appeared almost daily -- sometimes more frequently - - on Republican-leaning programs to make his case, only to be labeled “naive” by Rush Limbaugh and “duped” by Laura Ingraham.
The National Review, a publication that once fawned over Rubio, is publishing a cover on May 20 that features a picture of a him, smiling with his eyes squinted shut between Schumer and McCain, with a headline blaring: “RUBIO’S FOLLY.”
Still, he perseveres. Rubio never missed a chance to talk about it with constituents last week during a Senate break.
“We’re the party of problem solving, which is frankly why I’ve taken on this very difficult issue of immigration reform,” Rubio told 545 diners who paid $250 each April 30 for plates of roast beef and a foil-wrapped baked potato to hear him speak at the Pasco County Republican Party’s Reagan Day Dinner. “I want to take a moment to explain it to you, because I know a lot of you have mixed feelings about what that means, so I hope you’ll listen to what I have to say.”
Then he began an eight-minute case for his plan, which for Rubio goes something like this: The immigration system is antiquated, offering “de facto amnesty” to people who lack proper authorization. Republicans want a long and arduous path to citizenship, and enough border security measures that such a move will never be required again. If Republicans don’t step forward, the issue will be left to Obama and Democrats, who are only interested in “amnesty.”
The arguments ring hollow to opponents, who say the plan will harm American workers and undermine the rule of law. About two dozen of them gathered in the rain outside a Republican Party dinner Rubio headlined hoisting signs branding the senators as the “Amnesty Man” and sporting buttons calling him a liar. The protesters, many members of a group called Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, pointed to Rubio’s rejection during his 2010 Senate campaign of any measure to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants, and called his new stance a betrayal.
He “campaigned on anti-amnesty, got elected, and became a full amnesty leader,” said David Caulkett, vice president of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement.
Rubio is also taking criticism from the other end of the political spectrum, with Hispanic advocacy groups singling him out for being overly punitive.
“We see Rubio as increasingly representing all that is wrong with comprehensive immigration reform as it’s currently proposed, and we see him as a politician that has big aspirations, but still no pull with Latinos outside of the very small right-wing groups” in the Miami-based Cuban exile community, said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, a Latino advocacy group.
Still, some advocates of a broad changes to immigration laws who were once suspicious of Rubio’s commitment to the cause say they’ve been persuaded he’ll stay the course and has placed himself in a position where he has little choice.
‘See It Through’
“Despite my earlier doubts, I’m pretty sure he’s going to see it through,” Sharry said. “The only way this turns out to be a win for him and his party is for immigration reform to actually pass.”
Some Republicans agree, saying the political risks for Rubio are outweighed by the upside for his presidential ambitions and his party’s long-term viability.
“It’s riskier for him to do nothing if he wants to be the leader that I think we’re so much looking to find in our party - - he has to distinguish himself,” said Republican Representative Dennis Ross of Florida, who has known Rubio since the two won election in 2000 to the state’s legislature. “You’ve got to have a leader that has a vision, and Marco has a vision on this, and quite frankly, he can communicate it better than anybody.”