TAMPA — Like many of her fellow tea party activists, Toby Marie Walker of Waco, Texas, became disillusioned with Marco Rubio last year when he helped push an immigration reform bill that they considered “amnesty” through the Senate.
That changed her view on whether Rubio could be a viable candidate for president in 2016.
“I think he got suckered into something,” she said.
But today, Walker is still watching Rubio, and she recently saw something she liked: an impassioned Senate floor speech condemning the Cuban dictatorship and its ties to the political upheaval in Venezuela.
Rubio “still has a lot to answer for on immigration,” Walker said, but she added that “I thought he was spot on” in the speech. “He’s someone who gets it.”
Walker’s second look at the Florida senator is what Rubio backers hope is happening nationwide: a recovery from the tarring he sustained after he proposed and helped push through the Senate the bill containing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants now in the country.
Facing the monumental backlash that quickly developed from the conservative GOP base, Rubio backed off the legislation, offering to revise the bill and declining to help promote it in the House.
Fortunately for him, the bill never came up in the House. Its passage probably would have left him even more to answer for in the eyes of activists such as Walker, president of the Waco Tea Party organization.
Since then, Rubio has been pursuing two paths to reunite himself with the conservative base of the party: red-meat anti-Obama rhetoric focusing on the Affordable Care Act, and a series of high-profile speeches on everything from anti-poverty programs to foreign policy, an attempt to develop an image as a conservative policy heavyweight.
Most recently, he took a risk at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC — an annual gathering of the party’s conservative base and a cattle call for presidential hopefuls — to urge U.S. activism in foreign affairs.
It was a counter to the isolationist strain of thought among some conservatives that has helped lift one of Rubio’s main competitors for the political limelight on the right, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
“I think Marco Rubio has done himself a lot of good after harming himself with comprehensive immigration reform,” said David Bossie, president of the Citizens United conservative advocacy group.
Bossie and Citizens United were among the early conservative backers that enabled Rubio to mount a challenge in the 2010 Senate primary against Charlie Crist, then a sitting Republican governor and seemingly invincible.
“The jury is still out” but “we’d like to see him get back,” Bossie said. “It’s there for him if he just works at it. He doesn’t need to be defined by immigration as his sole issue.”
Before his immigration proposal, Rubio had made a meteoric rise to near-rock-star status in the party, including a February, 2013 Time magazine cover suggesting he was the “savior” of the GOP.
At the 2013 installment of CPAC, just before Rubio’s immigration proposal, he came in a close second to Paul in the gathering’s presidential straw poll, with 23 percent.
In the straw poll at the 2014 CPAC a week ago, he finished a distant seventh, with 6 percent, while Paul was a runaway winner with 31 percent. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was second with 11 percent.
After all but abandoning his immigration proposal, Rubio moved quickly to repair the damage, jumping on the hardest-line move in Congress against the Affordable Care Act.
He lined up with Cruz and Paul in an abortive move to shut down the government unless the health care reform plan was de-funded.
The move brought Cruz to national prominence.
♦ In December, Rubio spoke on foreign policy at a London think tank, breaking political protocol by criticizing President Barack Obama while speaking overseas.
♦ In January, he publicized a weeklong trip to Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.
He then gave a speech and published a video news release declaring the U.S. war on poverty a failure. He called for a standard GOP revamp of turning anti-poverty money over to states and replacing the earned income tax credit with subsidies to employers to provide “wage enhancement” for low-paying jobs. He also voted against extending federal unemployment benefits.
♦ In February, Rubio hit on higher education, calling for alternatives to four-year colleges and a “student investment” plan in which businesses would subsidize students in return for a percentage of their future earnings.
♦ In a speech on economic growth last week, he called for increased cooperation between federal research centers and private business, expanded access to high-speed Internet, more international trade agreements like NAFTA to boost exports, and an independent national board to prohibit government regulations if they cost businesses too much.
But Rubio got the most right-side attention with the Feb. 24 Venezuela speech, in which he bitterly blasted Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, for praising the Cuban government’s dedication to social welfare after visiting the island.
The speech reverberated through the conservative blogosphere after a Drudge Report posting, drawing praise from those who once bashed Rubio on immigration, including Rush Limbaugh, TownHall.com’s Conn Carroll and others.
Al Cardenas of Miami, a longtime Rubio backer and head of the American Conservative Union, which stages CPAC, didn’t agree that Rubio was damaged for the long run by the immigration issue.
“He has just begun his journey in national politics,” Cardenas said. “The most important thing anyone can do in that arena is make sure they‘re true to themselves and their beliefs,” which he said Rubio has done on immigration and others issues. “His support is a long-term thing.”
But prominent tea party activist Karin Hoffman of Fort Lauderdale said Rubio has lost some of the cachet he once had.
His comeback “hasn’t happened yet. There’s not the enthusiasm about him there once was,” she said.
Appraisals by national-level activists tend to be more blunt.
Rubio “is attempting to rehabilitate his image ... to win back people he thinks will be his base,” said Ned Ryun of the Washington-area conservative political advocacy group American Majority.
Asked whether it’s working, he said, “Yes, but he has definitely set himself back,” then quoted an activist friend from Arizona: “It’s going to take a lot to get me back on the Rubio train.”