WASHINGTON — Conservative radio host Mark Levin was ranting about Republicans suddenly talking about immigration reform, voice dripping with disgust as he wondered, "How did this become the big issue after the election?"
Levin, who uses "amnesty" like a four-letter word, said on his Nov. 8 show that Republicans were "race pandering . . . sound stupid and look stupid" and "surrendered to the left's arguments and their agenda."
So how did he react when Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio phoned in Wednesday to pitch his immigration ideas? "This is very fascinating to me," Levin said, barely probing the concept, including how millions of illegal immigrants would someday be eligible to seek citizenship.
After Rubio hung up, Levin called him a "very, very impressive man." As if realizing listeners were wondering if they were tuned to the wrong station, he said, "I still have a number of questions, but that's for another day."
Rubio had turned a lion into a lamb.
Since outlining the immigration "principles" two weeks ago, Rubio has brought the argument directly to prominent conservative media figures, from Sean Hannity to Bill O'Reilly.
Each time he scored an endorsement or Levin-like soft pedalling.
Rubio plays up enforcement measures as he laments a broken system that has allowed the number of illegal immigrants to climb past 11 million.
"We do have this issue, we have to confront and solve it in a responsible but pragmatic and humane way," Rubio told Hannity.
Hannity gushed that Rubio's ideas were "probably the most thoughtful" he had heard. Said O'Reilly: "We all want fairness and I think your program is a good one."
The reception underscores a significant turn for the GOP, eager to address its problem with Hispanic voters and dazzled by Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate. Rubio stepped into the fray at an opportune moment, riding an already changing tide.
It's the next step in a journey for Rubio, 41, who two years ago opposed as "amnesty" the last attempt at immigration reform, which also would have allowed undocumented residents to work toward citizenship. During his U.S. Senate run, Rubio adopted views that were largely in line with the same voices he is now pulling to the middle.
"He's being a salesman and staking his own political position," said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who has long pushed the GOP to tackle immigration. "Other Republicans are now saying the ice is thick enough to walk out on. That's how you get progress."
"Rubio is making that bridge that needs to be built much shorter," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "We'd like to see the next step from the senator and that's to start putting some language out there."
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Despite the splash, Rubio won't be producing his own legislation. Instead he is joining with a bipartisan group of lawmakers already working on the issue. Details could come as early as this week.
By jumping out ahead, Rubio may have been seeking to boost his presidential hopes or show he is more than a good talker. But his high-profile advocacy has undoubtably improved the conditions for a deal, framing the debate in a way many conservatives can accept or in the case of Levin, are not comfortable challenging.
"Rubio moves the needle. It's because the Republican Party has so much wrapped up in him and the hope of being able to say the nation's first president who is Latino also happens to be Republican," said Ruben Navarrette Jr., a syndicated columnist who writes frequently about immigration.
"The goal is not to leave the interview making Marco Rubio look bad. They know enough to get out of the way of a speeding train."
Rubio's media strategy has extended to traditional media sources, including Spanish-language TV and newspapers. Accolades have rolled in. "Sen. Rubio steps up on immigration," was the headline on a Washington Post editorial.
Some on the far right have begun attacking Rubio. "They are saying they're done with him, that he's betrayed the tea party and that Rubio and Obama are basically pushing the same pro-amnesty agenda," Navarrette said.
Rubio, in an interview, said there were some critics he could never convince.
"There are organizations out there whose sole purpose is this issue. That's how they raise their money, that's how they pay their bills, that's why they exist," he said. "Others are looking for a responsible solution and I think that's the vast majority of my colleagues. I don't like the fact that we have 8 or 10 million people undocumented, either. But that's what we have. That's the hand we've been dealt, and so we have to play this hand as best as we can."
He diffuses the "amnesty" question by emphasizing steps undocumented immigrants would have to go through before getting in the back of the line to seek citizenship. They include admitting wrongdoing, paying fines, learning English and doing community service.
President Barack Obama, who will outline his own goals in a speech Tuesday in Las Vegas, has called for similar steps but Rubio provides the imprimatur of a conservative star. Rubio's aides say he is working closely with the bipartisan group, which includes Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to ensure his views are incorporated.
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The GOP is quickly reassessing its views on immigration out of survival. Hispanics, the fastest-growing demographic in the country, continue to flock toward Democrats while the GOP's base of white men is declining. Addressing immigration won't save the GOP, but it could remove the reason why some Hispanics won't even listen to Republicans.
The party's evolution can be viewed through Rubio.
He was seen as a moderate during his time in the Florida Legislature, supporting a move to give in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. While he was speaker of the House, a number of bills calling for hard-hitting enforcement died. But as he ran for Senate in 2009 and 2010, rising with the tea party, he began to reflect the politics of the moment.
Rubio embraced the Arizona immigration law (after first criticizing it), opposed counting illegal immigrants in the census and came out against the Dream Act, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants. He also said he opposed the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform effort, which McCain and Florida Sen. Mel Martinez helped craft.
"You can't round up 11 million people because we don't live in a police state," Rubio told a crowd in North Florida in 2009. "But you can't grant amnesty either because if you do, you will destroy any hope of having a legal immigration system that works. You will send a message that all you have to do is come into this country, stay here long enough and we will let you stay.''
Last year, Rubio said he was crafting an alternative to the Dream Act. He never released a bill, and Obama stepped in to do something similar. Now, in a little-noticed change in his thinking, Rubio is backing an expedited path to citizenship for those young immigrants.
"He's evolving. The most important thing is where he is at this moment," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "We have a movement right now where we can get this resolved and he can be a key element in making that happen."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]