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Has immigration bill's support cursed Rubio?

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Published:   |   Updated: June 30, 2013 at 08:18 AM

TAMPA ญญ- "There will be no parade for me on this issue," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been telling audiences about his fight for a comprehensive immigration package.

Despite the Senate's passage of the bill Thursday, that seems like an understatement.

Rubio has been plastered on the issue from the left and right - from the right, for backing a bill many of his strongest and earliest supporters consider a betrayal, and from the left for seeming too ambivalent and appearing to back away from his own bill.

The barrage, particularly from the tea party activists and rightist pundits who ignited his rise to national prominence, raises the question: Has the issue doomed Rubio's hopes for a presidential run in 2016?

Probably not, said a variety of political experts and Republican insiders from varying points on the political spectrum.

Several said his stance could make him a more attractive general election candidate, but also might make it tougher for him to win the Republican nomination.

Moreover, the outcome of the debate - whether the bill eventually becomes law and in what form - could help or hurt his chances.

For better or worse, Rubio probably couldn't have avoided a high profile in the immigration debate.

The nation's best-known Hispanic Republican, Rubio built his 2010 campaign largely around the story of his own immigrant family.

"He had to get involved in this issue," said University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto, who studies Hispanic politics. "Otherwise, it would have looked like he was abandoning an issue that is so important to his own community, after using his own bootstrap immigrant story so effectively in 2010. It would have crushed him."

However, Rubio made a voluntary decision to join the "gang of eight," a bipartisan group of senators pushing the bill, and become the leading conservative advocate of the reform package. It includes a path to earned citizenship for those now in the country illegally.

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Republicans are sharply divided over the bill.

After it passed the Senate on Thursday, a spokesman for the national Republican Party's Senate campaign arm said the party will attack Democratic senators who voted for it, even though Rubio and 13 other Republicans did also.

But to many of Rubio's earliest backers, his stance is a bitter betrayal.

In 2010, when Rubio challenged former Gov. Charlie Crist in a Republican Senate primary, support from tea party activists and national conservative ideologues turned him from a little-known underdog into the front-runner. Until that happened, he had been so depressed about his chances he considered dropping out of the race, he acknowledged in his recent autobiography.

"We were the boots on the ground that knocked on the doors and made the phone calls," said Tampa tea party activist Tim Curtis during a news conference and demonstration outside Rubio's Tampa district office last week.

"It's terribly disappointing that a person we placed such trust in would turn a deaf ear to us and a blind eye to the Constitution."

Barbara Haselden of the South Pinellas 9-12 project recalled hosting a meeting for Rubio early in the 2010 campaign, drawing 350 attendees at a time when Rubio was having trouble getting attention from fellow Republicans.

"I'm very disillusioned. I'm heartbroken," she said. "It's like a bad marriage. He's cheated."

Though Rubio denies it, they say he's flip-flopped on the issue.

Conservative websites last week circulated video of Rubio's Oct. 24, 2010, debate with Crist, in which Rubio accused Crist of supporting "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

" 'Earned path to citizenship' is basically code for amnesty," Rubio said in that debate. "It's what (supporters) call it."

Sarah Palin, another early backer of Rubio against Crist, ripped him on Facebook and Twitter last week, calling for a primary challenge against him and citing him as an example of why people don't trust politicians.

She "thought that he was an honest politician," Palin said on a Fox News radio show. "He has said that he would never support legalization of illegals. ... He's reneged on that promise."

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Some prominent rightist pundits have backed Rubio or at least disagreed respectfully - Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly - but many bash him, usually with the hated word "amnesty."

"What a piece of garbage this guy is," Glenn Beck said of Rubio on his radio show Thursday.

In a tea party rally June 19 in Washington, Rubio's name was booed repeatedly with calls of "RINO," meaning "Republican in name only," and "Primary him."

Robert Rector, head of the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that was one of the founding pillars of the modern conservative movement, told the crowd at that rally, "Marco Rubio has not read his own bill," and recounted a New Yorker reporter's story quoting an unnamed Rubio legislative aide - quotes repudiated by Rubio - saying immigrants are needed because American workers "can't cut it."

Conservatives, who normally would disdain a New Yorker story citing unnamed sources, spread the quote far and wide on the Internet.

A national poll last week by the conservative-oriented Rasmussen Reports found Rubio's favorability ratings among Republicans had dropped to 58 percent from 73 percent in February.

Rubio, who wasn't available for an interview for this story, acknowledges the problem and insists he's not backing the bill for political gain.

"Their opinions really matter to me because they were with me three years ago when so many people ... thought I had no chance," he said in a Senate floor speech last week.

"To hear the worry and anxiety and the growing anger in the voices of people who helped me get elected to the Senate, whom I agree with on virtually every other issue, it's been a real trial for me."

But he said he will stay on the issue in hopes of "one day uniting behind a common conservative strategy of how to fix our broken immigration system."

In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he also said he intends to make a decision in late 2014 on a presidential run.

Despite the virulence of the bashing, many knowledgeable people feel Rubio's 2016 chances aren't ruined. Retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican, said the fracas "diminishes his chances in a primary, but probably enhances his standing with independents and some Democrats." Rubio's flip-flop on the issue undoubtedly will be fodder for attack ads, he said.

Despite the anger of the tea party activists, said University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett, who's politically neutral, "A lot of big-business Republicans, people that fund the party, want to see reform, to take the issue off the table," fearing hostility from Hispanics is a long-term danger to the party.

Long-time backer Al Cardenas of Miami, president of the influential American Conservative Union, called the controversy "a short-lived melodrama, but far from decisive," he said. "It's early on, he's got plenty of options.

"I think he's learned the admiration of his colleagues and major donors for courage of convictions. I'm proud of him."

Cardenas has convened a group of influential conservative leaders - Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist, religious right leader Ralph Reed and others - backing the legislation.

Cardenas noted that Arizona Sen. John McCain, who joined Sen. Ted Kennedy to back a reform bill with a path to citizenship in 2006-07, "had the biggest target on his back after that debate, and a year later he ended up being our nominee. There's far more Republican support for reform now than there was then."

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But political consultant John Weaver, a longtime McCain strategist, pointed out that McCain had to renounce his own reform bill during the 2008 primary and paid a high political price for having pushed the issue.

"That forced him to pick a more conservative running mate" - Palin - "and hurt him badly in the general election." he said.

"It's a damn shame, but in our party today, it's probably more of a net negative than a positive," Weaver said. "My guess is Rubio will pay a price in Iowa and other early caucus states."

Ironically, the best political outcome for Rubio may be if the bill fails, as many expect, in the House, said Dan Schnur, a University of Southern California political scientist and veteran GOP strategist.

House Speaker John Boehner said flatly last week the House won't vote on the bill in its current form. If it passes, Schnur said, "Rubio has achieved an important policy goal, but put himself at risk politically."

If House Republicans make so many border security demands that Democrats back away from the bill, "Then he can be the leader who tried to bring the two sides together but fell short. That might be the best place to be in a Republican primary."

Rubio's problem, he added, "is a smaller-scale version of that faced by the Republican Party as a whole: How do you move the party forward without alienating its base?"

But Barreto, who studies Latino voters' opinions, said polling shows they'll remain hostile to Republicans, including Rubio, if the bill fails.

Republicans including Rubio, he said, have "a historic opportunity to improve standing among Latinos - or else."

wmarch@tampatrib.com

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