WASHINGTON – Some Republicans eager to look past Mitt Romney’s disappointing defeat Tuesday are looking to Marco Rubio.
Much of the hand-wringing by conservatives about Romney’s loss to President Obama centers on the former Massachusetts governor’s dismal performance among Latino voters. Only about one in four Hispanics supported the GOP nominee, according to various exit polls.
Enter Rubio, 41, the charismatic Cuban-American senator from West Miami who has tried to soften his party’s often harsh rhetoric about illegal immigrants.
Rubio believes that instead of focusing simply on tightening borders and deporting foreigners in the country illegally, federal policy should also look at sensibly accommodating those who have been on American soil for years.
He has proposed a version of the DREAM Act that would allow children brought to the United States illegally at an early age the opportunity to stay in the country and seek legal residency provided they complete high school and have no criminal history. Many Republicans oppose amnesty, but Rubio said it’s time to change the conversation.
“The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them,” he said in a statement issued Wednesday, less than two hours after Romney’s concession speech.
Some pundits viewed the timing and nature of his remarks as a sign that the freshman senator Romney once considered for his running mate wants to do more than represent the Sunshine State.
In the past, Rubio has downplayed national ambitions even when his name came up constantly last summer as a vice presidential contender.
The father of four young children, Rubio cited family obligations as a key reason to focus on his job as Florida’s junior senator. Family was one of the reasons mentioned when Rubio earlier this week declined Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s request to lead the party’s 2014 efforts to retake the Senate.
But Romney’s dismal showing among Latinos has Republicans and independent pundits talking up Rubio as a potential nominee four years from now.
Adding fuel to the speculation is Rubio’s trip next week to Iowa, where he will headline a fundraiser for GOP Gov. Terry Branstad. The Hawkeye State plays a key role in the presidential nomination process.
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said the senator’s trip shouldn’t be interpreted as a presidential foray because Branstad extended the invitation to Rubio during the Republican National Convention in Tampa this summer.
Rubio was not available for comment.
In the wake of Romney’s defeat, some prominent conservatives are rethinking their previous opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote Friday that a comprehensive GOP policy that emphasizes border security as well as amnesty could be a winning card four years from now – delivered by the right messenger.
“Imagine Marco Rubio advancing such a policy on the road to 2016,” Krauthammer wrote. “It would transform the landscape. He’d win the Hispanic vote. Yes win it.”
Romney won only 23 percent of the Hispanic vote Tuesday, far less than the 40 percent George W. Bush captured in 2004, said Gary Segura, a political science professor at Stanford University. The data is based on polls by Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm that Segura co-founded. Segura doesn’t think Latinos will be voting for Republicans in droves any time soon. And even if Rubio were to win the nomination, Segura said he’d still have much work to do to convince most of the nation’s Hispanics, two-thirds of whom are of Mexican heritage, that a more conservative Cuban-American has their interests at heart.
But he said there’s an opportunity to make inroads with the nation’s fastest-growing minority group if GOP lawmakers moderate their immigration stance. And he believes Rubio will lead the effort while positioning himself for a White House run.
Ultimately, Rubio and his party’s chances of luring more Hispanics – and recapturing the Oval Office – rests heavily with whether GOP lawmakers back measures to give deserving Latinos a chance to attain citizenship, Segura said.
“If they don’t fix the immigration reform issue, you could have seven Marco Rubios (and) it’s not going to change the party’s reputation,” he said.