Photographer: Mark Peterson/Redux

Marco Rubio's Apology Tour

As other potential presidential candidates are sounding the opening themes of their campaigns, he’s had to start again at the bottom.

Marco Rubio glided through a group of 40 or so Republican insiders at Lisa Van Riper’s South Carolina home, shaking hands and making jokes. “We are a nation of immigrants,” he told the group at one point, the closest Van Riper could recall him coming to the topic of immigration reform.

At one point, Rubio’s personal history as the son of immigrants was his most potent political attribute. But that was before he co-sponsored a Senate immigration bill, including a path to citizenship, that was supposed to be a general-election killer app—and it blew up in his face. Now, Rubio says the word “immigrant” as if he’s gingerly salving a wound.

As other potential presidential candidates—Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson—are sounding the opening themes of their campaigns, Marco Rubio has embarked on a kind of apology tour. He’s had to start again at the bottom, taking his lumps in early-primary states as he reintroduces himself as someone who, while the son of Cuban immigrants, would never consider a sweeping immigration bargain of the kind that could be forged with Democrats.

That means dropping in on small house parties organized by friends, such as Van Riper’s gathering of movement conservatives about five miles from the Shoeless Joe Jackson museum in downtown Greenville. He took similar meetings in Iowa, peeling off the primary campaign trail with the state’s eventual U.S. Senate nominee, Joni Ernst. In New Hampshire, he huddled with party activists, getting to know several who helped Mitt Romney’s presidential effort in the state.

“If he decides to do something, he’ll have a Rolodex that doesn’t need to be refreshed,” says former Romney adviser Tom Rath, who attended one of the New Hampshire meetings.

If you mention presidential ambitions, Rubio is quick to slap them away. “I’m focused on 2014 and winning back control of the Senate,” Rubio replies when asked about his modest travels in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. “We’ll worry about 2016 after that.”

Instead, he’s trying to make friends with his substantial checkbook and national name recognition. His super PAC has spent $760,000 airing television ads for Republican Senate candidates in Iowa, Arkansas, and Colorado. He jumped into Ernst’s primary when the field was still crowded. He’s helped raise money for the financially strapped New Hampshire Republican Party and headlined Representative Jeff Duncan’s Faith and Family BBQ in South Carolina.

“He’s trying to get his bearings back,” says Greg Mueller, president of CRC Public Relations, a Washington consulting firm specializing in Tea Party outreach. “Rubio may be our strongest guy when it comes to articulating a message, but there’s no doubt that stepping out on immigration was a controversial thing for him to do. And if he’s going to run for president, this is the kind of spade work that’s required.”

Mueller, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan, attended a private fundraiser Rubio recently hosted for Barbara Comstock, who is trying to hold on to an open U.S. House seat in Virginia for Republicans.

“People want to like their elected officials, and how you present yourself in these smaller events, that gets around the country fast,” Mueller says. "Rubio is very approachable and not afraid to get into the details on health care. Some candidates just want to press the flesh, kiss the babies, and move on. Rubio is ready to have a discussion about ideas."

Ideas about immigration are kept to a minimum. Earlier this month, Rubio traveled to New Hampshire to raise money for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown at a pair of private events. The pair spent about 45 minutes on bar stools in front of an exposed-brick tavern wall, giving their reasons for a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Broaching the subject of immigration would have been awkward. Brown said during a debate the day before that he'd vote against Rubio's immigration bill. Rubio would also lose Senate votes for his immigration bill should his money and campaigning help elect Ernst, Colorado's Cory Gardner, and Tom Cotton in Arkansas. 

As soon as they finished, Rubio was swarmed by the crowd, who wanted to take selfies with the Florida Republican and ask whether he's running for president. But that lightheadedness seemed to be lost on a triumvirate of straight-talking New Englanders who barely budged from their seats as the pack surrounding Rubio shuffled toward the exit.

“He's pro-amnesty,” Sandy Geisler, a 53-year-old event planner and Republican activist, said when asked what Rubio's toughest challenge would be in 2016.

Her answer, which included the word “amnesty” five times in the span of 25 seconds, unleashed three nearly simultaneous streams of consciousness from the other women, who were eager to describe, as Liz Thomas put it, the “huge problems” illegal immigration is causing for our country. “A lot of federal money is being spent on illegal aliens, and we already have a lot of need in this state and other states,” said Thomas, 64. “They're not being checked for diseases or drugs or a lot of other things,” Nancy Kindler, 66, complained. Geisler trumped both, saying “illegals” beat her up when she lived in Los Angeles.

I asked if she was sure they were undocumented.

“You could probably say that, yeah,” Geisler responded. Kindler shoots her a look. “Sometimes too much information,” Kindler told her.

So their loathing of the “amnesty” bill eliminates any chance they'd back one of its co-authors for president, yes? “No,” they say in unison. Their reasons are rooted in a kind of New England Republican pragmatism. First, it's way too early for early state voters to be vocally dismissive of any potential candidate who may spend much of the next year showering them with attention. They also don't want to write off a dynamic speaker from a battleground state who happens to be the son of Cuban immigrants at a time when many Republicans seem more interested in driving away Hispanic voters.

Perhaps most important, they see Rubio blurring his position on immigration to appear closer to the party's base on the issue. And they're willing to play along.

“We think he believes like we believe,” Kindler said. “He's getting himself more educated on how to go about it, taking care of the immigration problem. This is a new day. This is a new year. He has a chance to listen to what we have to say.”

At Duncan's summer barbecue in Anderson, S.C., about 90 minutes from J. Strom Thurmond Lake in the hilly northwest corner of the state, a crowd of 1,200 people bought $25 tickets for pulled-pork sandwiches, sweet iced tea, and a chance to see the 43-year-old wunderkind. And almost to a person, they brought up immigration reform.

“That immigration plan, it is amnesty for illegals, and that is major baggage for him,” said Mitch Brooks, 68, the pastor at Second Baptist in Belton, South Carolina. “If it wasn't for that, I think he could rise to the top.”

Even the man who helped elevate Rubio's unlikely Senate campaign in 2010 says the bill contributed to the rise of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border, a crisis that convinced 220 of 231 House Republicans to vote in support of increasing deportations of Dreamers—immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children—rather than create a way for undocumented aliens to earn citizenship.

“That bill was a part of the idea that eventually there’s going to be a large amnesty in America, so you should get here as quickly as you can,” Jim DeMint, who'd been among Rubio's most ardent early champions, said in an interview. DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina and now president of the Heritage Foundation, helped Rubio raise millions and stoked early speculation about national ambitions with a website.

The plan Rubio championed in the Senate included billions for border security and a path to citizenship for many of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. As a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators who crafted the plan, Rubio had news conferences and photo opportunities with New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, a villain to the right.

His payback was supposed to be a rallying call to Latino voters to line up behind a Republican candidate with bipartisan appeal. Instead, the bill unleashed the fury of the right.

“People within the Tea Party movement don't fully trust him,” Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said in an interview. “There was a lot of chatter and a lot of conversations about Rubio, and then he pushed and shoved on the Gang of Eight bill. I have not heard any chatter that people are now happy with him.”

This was the type of skepticism that Rubio walked into at the Anderson Civic Center in August, as gospel music echoed off cement-block walls and the scent of floral perfume and barbecue sauce drifted through the air.

Standing in front of a mostly older, white audience, Rubio had barely had time to joke about quenching his thirst when some young Hispanic protesters interrupted him four times, yelling that he wanted to deport them and “rip apart” their families.

The moment told the crowd what Rubio wouldn't say directly: That he's shifted his immigration position. Last year he encouraged the House to approve legislation that differed from his own plan that passed the Senate. This year he joined his fellow Republicans in calling on Obama to end a 2012 program that legalizes certain undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, the Dreamers.

As the protesters in the civic center were corralled by members of the audience—including an elderly man who shoved one of the young activists—Rubio mocked the Dreamers, saying he couldn't hear what they were saying. “What side are they on?” he asked the crowd, which responded with laughs.

At another point, he leaned into the microphone, telling the protesters they were “doing harm to your own cause” and that the U.S. would enforce immigration laws like “every country in the world.”

“You don't have a right to illegally immigrate to the United States,” Rubio said. And with that, the crowd rose to its feet and applauded.

“After tonight, I take it that he wants what we want: Close the border, make immigration legal,” said Linda Floyd, a 54-year-old office clerk in Anderson, who said she'd now consider him if he runs for president. “He stands for freedom, and he stands for our laws,” she said. “I respect Marco Rubio.”