Marco Rubio's image takes beating

9:16 AM, Jul 22, 2013   |    comments
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida)
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WASHINGTON (News-Press) -- After spending the spring selling a bill that would give 11 million people here illegally a path to citizenship, Republican Marco Rubio has veered back to the right.

Recently, Florida's junior senator blasted President Barack Obama for his "job-killing" environmental agenda, threatened to vote against any spending bill that doesn't defund Obama's sweeping health care law, and is considering lead sponsorship of a bill banning most abortions beyond 20 weeks.

But some conservatives say it's not enough to erase doubts the potential 2016 presidential candidate sowed with his willingness to grant what they call "amnesty" to those illegally in the country.

"What happened with immigration is something that will haunt him," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. "People across the country and in Florida are disgusted with what he did in the amnesty bill. ... He could have stood for the rule of law."

It's not clear what sort of lasting damage the immigration issue might inflict on a dynamic politician who's often been described as a tea party favorite.

Activists angry

But some tea party activists in Florida are so angry with him, they're exploring finding a candidate to challenge Rubio in the GOP primary if he seeks re-election in 2016, said Cindy Lucas, a tea party organizer in Martin County.

"Some people have talked to potential candidates. I myself have reached out. I'm not getting 'no.' I'm getting 'maybe,'" she said. "It's a little way out there. Maybe people want to see what Sen. Rubio can do to redeem himself. I think he's been trying to do that in the last two weeks."

Former congressional candidate Byron Donalds, of the Naples Tea Party's leadership council, said Rubio was no longer the politician who lingers in tea party members' minds.

"A lot of people are not happy with his involvement in the immigration bill," the Collier County resident said. "It won't solve the problem, only exacerbate it."

Broken system

Pitching the immigration bill on conservative radio shows and in front of Republican groups earlier this year, Rubio defended the measure as necessary to fix a "broken" system that's allowed millions of immigrants to enter illegally or overstay their visas.

The legislation would spend more than $40 billion to build more fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and add more than 20,000 border agents. It would revamp the nation's visa program and beef up workplace verification to make sure jobs are held by legal residents.

At the same time, it would create a process to allow immigrants in the country illegally to become citizens within 13 years, provided they meet benchmarks.

Big issue

Rubio has known the bill might alienate some conservatives. But he told reporters in April the problem was too big to ignore any longer.

"I don't want to be part of a bill that 10 years from now people point to as an example of a mistake. I want to make sure we do this the right way and what we have crafted is a starting point," he said. "I hope sincerely that those who have problems with it don't just offer objections but offer solutions because to say that we don't have a problem is not a realistic position."

The Senate bill passed overwhelmingly last month and Rubio, one of a Gang of Eight bipartisan senators who crafted the legislation, got much of the credit (or blame) for the result. GOP leaders in the House have said they won't take it up, and Rubio has not joined other members of the "Gang of Eight" to pressure the House into action.

"I think he's working hard" to sell the bill, countered Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, one of the bill's cosponsors. "He's been fine in my view."

Martin, with the Tea Party Patriots, said straw polling by the organization's PAC shows Rubio's popularity falling sharply since the Senate passed the immigration bill.

Polling sags

Previously, he was consistently rated among the top three potential GOP candidates in the 2016 presidential field, getting about 18-20 percent, she said. The latest straw polls show him garnering no more than 5 percent.

"He's near the bottom." she said.

That decline mirrors results in other recent surveys of GOP voters.

Despite those reservations, Rubio has done well on the political money trail. His PAC reported raising more than $3 million in the three months ended June 30 - the best ever for his committee, according to consultant Todd Harris.

But it might be more difficult to raise money from conservatives going forward.

Bob VanderPlaats, who heads The Family Leader, a socially conservative organization in Iowa, likes Rubio's views on families and marriage but shares Gatti's disappointment over his role on immigration.

It wasn't just that Rubio advocated amnesty, VanderPlaats said, but who he was advocating it with on Capitol Hill: McCain, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

"I never think anything's a fatal blow but what got him elected was (the idea) that he wasn't going to be politics as usual," he said. "Then when they saw him in the group with Schumer and McCain, right away they said, 'We sent you there to lead, not to join.' "

VanderPlaats said Rubio should "grab hold of the microphone" and explain his rationale for the bill, especially in Iowa, which conducts the nation's first presidential caucuses.

"It will be difficult" to recover, he said. But "what we've seen before is that Iowans, Americans, voters, we're a very forgiving lot."

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