Rubio Seeks to Reconnect With the Right
Stung by conservative backlash earlier this year, Marco Rubio has spent months seemingly trying to convince skeptical fellow Republicans that he’s more than just the Florida senator who championed comprehensive immigration reform.
He joined the drive to defund President Barack Obama’s health care law, though his voice grew softer as the resulting government shutdown and his party sank in polls. He then turned to championing social issues like legislative prayer.
On Saturday, Rubio will deliver the keynote address at a fundraiser for the Florida Family Policy Council, an evangelical group that led the successful 2008 effort to ban gay marriage in the state. And next week, the potential presidential candidate plans to deliver what aides described as a major foreign policy speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Taken together, Republicans say the actions suggest two things: that Rubio is trying to reconnect with activists still smarting over his support for an immigration overhaul that included a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living here illegally, and that he’s trying to find an issue that resonates with conservatives, in the way Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is linked to fighting "Obamacare" and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to criticizing the president’s use of drone strikes.
That’s important if Rubio wants to stand out in a potentially crowded GOP presidential field, where he is generally viewed as less strident than Cruz and former Sen. Rick Santorum but more conservative than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Rubio’s advisers say the senator long has emphasized his conservative positions and would benefit from the fact that, unlike others, he’s able to talk about them in a way that doesn’t turn off voters from other parts of the political spectrum.
"There is still a space in the Republican primary field for someone to emerge as the conservative alternative to Christie," said Scott Reed, a Republican who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign. "Rubio’s at the front of the line, if he chooses to run."
To do so successfully, Rubio would need to rekindle the conservative fire among the tea party voters who elevated an obscure state legislator into a national sensation - and who are poised to help christen the next GOP standard-bearer. Right now, Rubio is so closely associated with the stalled immigration bill that at a conference of conservatives this summer he was heckled with cries of "No amnesty!"
These days, he rarely mentions immigration. And after months of arguing for the passage of the comprehensive bill he helped write, Rubio says he now favors the piecemeal approach of House leaders, who have focused primarily on border security and enforcement. He has said he’s being "realistic" about the prospects of far-reaching changes in the Republican-dominated lower chamber.
Meanwhile, Rubio has used his perch on the Senate foreign relations and intelligence committees to push for stiffer sanctions on Iran and greater accountability on foreign aid.
He’s also emphasizing his right-leaning positions on social issues, which aides say is simply a reflection of the Florida senator’s conservative passions; he is a devout Catholic who wears a bracelet highlighting his opposition to abortion rights.
"Sen. Rubio is a committed movement conservative who is active on almost every front in the fight for the values that make America great," said spokesman Alex Conant. "The values and principles he’s fighting for right now are the same ones he’s been fighting for as long as he’s been in public office."