Aug. 31 (Bloomberg) -- In the 15 minutes Marco Rubio spent speaking to a crowd of anti-tax Tea Party Republicans in Orlando, Florida, he didn’t mention the word “immigration.” Activists at the annual meeting of Americans for Prosperity didn’t hesitate to raise the subject -- loudly.
“No amnesty,” shouted several men and women, interrupting the Florida Republican senator multiple times during his speech yesterday. “Secure the border,” a woman near the back of the room whispered as Rubio paused briefly during remarks that coursed through such ideals as “American values,” “free enterprise,” “moral wellbeing” and “strong families.”
For Rubio, 42, a prospective 2016 White House candidate, immigration represents both his greatest legislative accomplishment and perhaps the biggest threat to his chances of becoming America’s first Hispanic president.
The hecklers, and Rubio’s decision not to address their concerns, illustrate the tension that has grown between the lawmaker who helped author the immigration bill passed by the Senate and the Tea Party activists who fueled his candidacy just three years ago.
“There are some Republicans, some conservatives and some Tea Partiers that are very disappointed in him,” said Slade O’Brien, Florida director for Americans for Prosperity, an Arlington, Virginia-based group that advocates for limited government and a free-market economy.
“Voters in Florida have been tougher on him than in the rest of the country because he campaigned here in 2010,” said O’Brien, who helped organize the Orlando gathering. “He’s going to have to win those voters back.”
The immigration bill -- which offers 11 million undocumented U.S. immigrants an opportunity to become citizens - - passed the Senate in late June. With other Tea Party-backed lawmakers criticizing the citizenship provision as “amnesty,” the measure has stalled in the U.S. House.
Before the Senate approved its bill, Rubio spent months trying to win over Tea Party activists, doing interviews with talk radio hosts and television personalities popular with Republicans.
In his speech yesterday, Rubio stuck mostly to issues that generate considerable support among Tea Party Republicans and other small-government advocates.
He joined Republican Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas, both of whom are also considered potential 2016 candidates, in embracing tax cuts, criticizing the federal government and attacking President Barack Obama. Today, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas gave a keynote address to the group, spoke on those same themes while vowing to overturn the federal health-care law.
“Our struggles are not because there’s something broken with America,” Rubio said. “Our struggles are because there’s something broken with this president, his administration and his policies.”
Susannah Hinkle, a 46-year-old recent law school graduate from Orlando, said she voted for Rubio in 2010 and feels betrayed. For the 2016 presidential race, she’s considering Republicans outside her home state.
“I like Governor Perry and Governor Jindal, but I’m a little disappointed in Senator Rubio,” said Hinkle, who attended the event. “I understand his position that the immigration system needs to be reformed, but doing it with the likes of the Senate Democrats isn’t the way to go.”
Rubio acknowledged in his speech that he relied on the Tea Party and such groups as AFP to win his Senate seat, and said he will take a strong stance on two issues they care about: the federal health-care law and the federal debt.
“I will not vote for any short-term budget that spends one single cent on Obamacare,” he said, drawing cheers. “I will not vote to raise the debt limit unless it comes with a balanced budget amendment.”
Aside from the hecklers, Rubio’s decision to steer clear of the immigration issue and emphasize small-government themes played well with some of the crowd, and he left to a standing ovation.
Jim Bannon, a 73-year-old retiree from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, said he would vote for Rubio if he runs for president in 2016. “I don’t like the amnesty thing, but I still support him, I respect him,” he said.
His wife, Mary Lou Bannon, chimed in: “But we have a lot of friends who don’t.”
Cruz, 42, galvanized the crowd of more than 500 activists with a vow to “repeal Obamacare.”
“In the next 30 days we have our single best opportunity we’ve ever had to stand up and defund Obamacare,” he said. “I think it is the most important fight facing our country right now.”
Jindal and Perry accused Washington of meddling in their states.
Jindal, 42, brought up a recent Justice Department lawsuit over Louisiana’s education initiatives, criticizing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the president. He said he will challenge the suit.
“We’ve got a message for Eric Holder and we’ve got a message for Barack Obama,” he said. “The American dream is alive and well in Louisiana and we’re going to fight.”
Perry, 63, bashed the federal government over the health-care law, taxes and other policy issues he said should be left to state lawmakers. He defended his efforts to recruit jobs from other states, saying the competition would spur innovation. Governors in states targeted by Perry have been critical of the job recruitment efforts, with some accusing him of “poaching.”
“All roads lead back to the states, that’s the future of America,” Perry said to applause. “Let the states lead this country back to prosperity.”
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