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Could Rubio Help Deliver Latino Voters to the GOP in 2012?

Could Rubio Help Deliver Latino Voters to the GOP in 2012?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 14, 2011


When Florida Republican Marco Rubio accepted his U.S. Senate victory in November, he spoke about the immigrant experience of his Cuban-exiled parents and the dreams they had for their children in America. But he also spoke about the wrong direction he believed the country was headed and the need to take on pressing economic issues in Washington.

It's this dual orientation that has made Rubio an attractive commodity within the Republican Party: He's a smart, articulate and politically aggressive son of Cuban-born parents who impresses both tea party conservatives and a sizable percentage of Latino voters who voted for him in Florida, a diverse and delegate-rich swing state that will play a significant role in the 2012 elections.

In recent weeks, Rubio has repeatedly and publically denied an interest in the vice presidential nomination, a demurral intended mostly to signal that he is being considered for the role. (A senior Romney aide told the Wall Street Journal that a Mitt Romney-Marco Rubio pairing could be "a dream ticket.") But as much as he is considered a crossover star who might help close the gap between his party and Latino voters, it's not clear that he actually has the power to steal votes from the other side. The most immediate hurdle for the GOP freshman is the thorny subject of immigration, and that word "dream" that keeps cropping up at the center of it.

Immigration has always been an integral component of the "American Dream" -- for conservatives as well as liberals. The last large-scale legalization legislation for immigrants who'd originally come to the United States illegally was signed into law by Ronald Reagan. And in Reagan's farewell address, he made a point of defining his famous metaphor of the "shining city on a hill" by celebrating freedom-seeking immigrants on American shores.

In the polarized politics of today, however, immigration reform, which is generally understood to mean both gaining control of who enters this country and dealing with the estimated 12 million already here illegally, has fallen into the shallow waters of partisanship. One stopgap measure, originally believed to enjoy bipartisan support, was the DREAM Act (the acronym stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors). That legislation sought to offer the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they attend college or join the military. It passed the House last year but failed in the Senate in the face of Republican opposition. Latino activists have not forgotten.

"In order to fix the huge schism that the GOP self-inflicted with Latino voters, they are going to need a lot more than Marco Rubio," says Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. "Marco Rubio's story is very compelling, but history has shown that Latino voters look beyond the last name and the ethnicity and they actually look to a candidate's voting record."

Since taking office in January, Rubio has not engaged this issue, although he certainly has been an active lawmaker. He became publicly involved in the deficit debate and the controversy about U.S. military action in Libya, and he started a YouTube broadcast series where he answers letters from constituents. But he has been called a sell-out and accused of pandering to the right wing of his party on immigration. He has co-sponsored a bill that would require businesses to check the validity of job applicants' Social Security cards with an electronic system called "E-Verify" and he has opposed the DREAM Act on the grounds it would "grant blanket amnesty."

Rubio's team argues that the senator did not campaign on immigration, was upfront about his position on E-Verify and the DREAM Act during his 2010 Senate campaign, and, thus, has broken no promises to voters. His short time in Congress has been dominated by addressing the deficit, spending and the lagging economy -- issues just as important, if not more so, to Latinos as anyone else.

"If and when the time comes to engage on [immigration], he will bring a unique perspective to the table," says Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos, referring to the senator's Hispanic roots. "It's one he outlined during the campaign and one he intends to live up to in the Senate."

While both conservative and liberal Hispanic activists concede that the economy and jobs are the key concerns among Latino voters, as is the case for the broader electorate, they also agree that immigration reform can't be ignored in the coming election cycle, especially by a lawmaker of Hispanic origin.

"We can't wait for the president to engage us, for us to do something" on immigration, says Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. "We are not for amnesty but we are for common-sense solutions that are consistent with national security but recognize at the same time the need our economy has for foreign workers."

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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