COLUMN: Marco Rubio’s powerful lead in reorienting GOP on immigration

Farm Forum

Amid continuing evidence of the Republican Party’s internal tensions, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has taken the year’s most significant step in reorienting the GOP toward a more open and inclusive stance on the crucial issue of immigration.

Rubio’s wholehearted endorsement of the immigration bill unveiled Tuesday by a bipartisan group including him and seven colleagues stands out because of the continuing signs many Republican leaders have yet to get the 2012 election’s message that the party needs to moderate some positions.

Just last week, the Republican National Committee unanimously passed a resolution reiterating the party’s “support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman” despite a recent party panel report concluding the GOP’s opposition to gay marriage was a handicap in wooing younger voters.

Although he failed in his stated goal of denying President Barack Obama re-election, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is maintaining his sharply negative stance, opposing a compromise gun control bill and decrying Obama’s budget as a “left-wing wish list” despite its proposals to curb Medicare and Social Security benefits

Rubio is not the only Republican challenging some views or practices of the GOP’s dominant conservative wing. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania joined Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to co-sponsor the bill requiring background checks for most weapons sales. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky reached out to black voters by speaking at Washington’s Howard University, though misstatements somewhat undermined his good intentions.

These steps pale alongside Rubio’s decision to become an all-out supporter of the bipartisan immigration bill with a pitch on seven Sunday television shows designed to sell the year’s most defining political issue to more conservative Republicans. It stands out both because of the measure’s innate importance and because Rubio looms as a major GOP presidential hopeful in 2016.

Of course, he denied even thinking about that Sunday, so unconvincingly that one moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, reacted by exclaiming, “Seriously, senator?”

“My belief has always been that if I do my job and I do my job well, I’ll have options and opportunities in the future to do things, whether it’s run for re-election, run for something else or give someone else a chance at public service,” Rubio replied, leaving that 2016 door wide open.

The conventional wisdom is that, so far as his own chances, Rubio was taking a big gamble by taking a stance at odds with the conservative Republicans who dominated the party’s debate in 2012 to a degree they seemed to force ultimate nominee Mitt Romney to the right.

Rubio’s position not only drew a sharp line with some potential rivals who oppose immigration reform, like Texas’ freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, but provided an interesting contrast with the recent comments on the issue by his home state’s most senior Republican leader, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

In his book released last month, Bush backed away from supporting a pathway to citizenship, only to reverse his position in a subsequent television appearance. His book also called for giving states authority to cut off government benefits for immigrants, both those in the country legally and illegally, thus extending a policy that angered many Hispanic voters when California enacted it in 1994.

Rubio’s direct and clearly thought-out presentation Sunday contrasted sharply with Bush’s confused rollout. It ought to earn the Florida senator leadership points that might offset internal GOP criticism and make him more attractive to swing voters in a general election. He did throw conservatives a bone by strongly opposing the Toomey-Manchin gun control compromise.

Besides, immigration reform remains more likely to pass than gun control. If its supporters succeed in getting the big Senate majority that might help it later pass the House, Rubio is likely to earn a significant share of the political credit.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: