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Marco Rubio brings GOP hope with Hispanics but challenges remain

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Sorry, Washington superstar, Time magazine coverboy and hip-hop maven, she's never heard of you.

"Marco Rubio?" said 28-year-old Memorie Annese, taking her daughters to a public library in this city tucked amid soaring mountains and the Rio Grande.

But the Mexican-American, school bus-driving union member who voted for President Barack Obama didn't hesitate when asked if she would consider a Republican candidate with immigrant roots.

"Heck yeah — if he's good," Annese said. "There's a connection."

As the Florida senator explores a presidential run, her reaction undercuts Democratic assertions that non-Cuban Hispanics "don't give a damn about Marco Rubio," as Obama strategist David Plouffe said recently.

Interviews with voters in Hispanic-rich New Mexico, which Obama won twice, and Texas, a Republican bastion inching Democratic, suggest that Rubio could inspire goodwill and pride among minorities who shunned the GOP in the past two presidential elections.

"Having a president who is Hispanic, I can't even explain it," said Esmirna Corona, a college student in El Paso. "If people see Rubio is Hispanic, they'll take time to check him out. With Mitt Romney, I was like, no. Then I looked at his position on immigration and was like definitely not."

The 2012 election forced a Republican reckoning with the changing face of America. Obama took 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, crucial to his victory over Romney, who said he wanted to make it so hard on immigrants they would choose "self-deportation." White male voters, the lifeblood of the GOP, are declining as a share of the electorate while Hispanics are rising: 50,000 turn 18 every month.

It is against this rapidly changing backdrop that, Rubio, the 41-year-old bilingual son of working-class immigrants from Cuba, has staked his claim as the GOP's Pied Piper, using his charisma and biography to form a new version of hope and change to bring youth and diversity into the Republican fold.

The question is whether he can trump some of the conservative policies that separate him from the Hispanic community — his opposition to Obama's health care plan and to higher taxes on the rich, for example.

He's already addressing one key gap. Not long ago Rubio's hardline position against illegal immigration led critics on Spanish-language radio in Las Cruces to dismiss him as "anti-Hispanic." Now he is the face of immigration reform, dropping the no "amnesty" posture he adopted in his tea party-tinged 2010 Senate run to champion a proposal that would allow millions of undocumented residents to eventually become citizens.

"It was a huge deal for black people to have Obama. Rubio could do that for Hispanics," said Lawrence Rosales, 34, an Army MP and Republican who grew up in Las Cruces. "Who better to understand your people than someone who comes from the same background? They are smart to push Rubio."

Step into Estetica Unisex salon where Alejandro Figueroa, 29, works in El Paso and put the theory to test. He became a citizen in 2010 and voted for Obama last year because, he said, "Republicans look out for Americans, not Latinos." But someone like Rubio? "If he has good ideas for our people, of course I could change my mind. It's very important."

• • •

Voters who say they would be drawn to Rubio through culture insist it would take more than that to actually pull the lever. They consistently describe the GOP as out of touch, the party for the rich — qualities reinforced by the stiff, multimillionaire Romney.

"We identify with Democrats because they are empathetic to our needs. With the budget, the first thing Republicans try to cut are the social programs," said Corona, 20, the El Paso college student, praising what Head Start did for her as a child. She said her peers disagree with Republicans on a range of social issues, including gay marriage.

Rubio's opposition to Obamacare is at odds with strong support among Hispanics. While he rails against big government, surveys show Hispanics overwhelmingly like government services.

"How's he going to help me just because he's Latino?" asked David Martinez Jr., 37 of La Mesa, N.M., whose family operates a Mexican restaurant amid the expansive pecan farms of the Rio Grande Valley. "It's just hard to believe Republicans. They don't have a track record of helping minorities or the middle class.

"It's his beliefs and policies that are going to make the difference. Does Rubio have the same mentality as Romney with that '47 percent' stuff?"

Since the election, Rubio has overtly distanced himself from Romney. He has been talking a lot about the middle class and stressing his non-Romney upbringing, commiserating over student loans and calling for more vocational education and school choice.

The American Dream story about his parents, a hotel bartender and Kmart clerk, took a credibility hit when it was revealed they arrived in the United States before Fidel Castro took over. Rubio has dropped the reference to "exiles" but the story continues to move audiences.

"There are millions of Mario Rubios all across America today," Rubio said of his father in a speech in Washington a month after the election. "They aren't looking for a handout. ... All they want is a chance to earn a better life for themselves and a better future for their children."

Democrats point out that Cubans, whose special immigration status is a point of contention for other immigrants, are but a tiny slice of the Hispanic population and question Rubio's appeal to a broader community, let alone his hold on younger Cubans, who drifted away from the GOP.

A Quinnipiac poll last week added fuel. A hypothetical 2016 matchup between Rubio and Hillary Clinton showed her winning handily in Florida and capturing 57 percent of the Hispanic vote to Rubio's 35 percent.

"If Rubio runs against Mrs. Clinton, he doesn't stand a chance," said David Martinez Sr., father of the man in the New Mexico restaurant. "But we'll look at him. We'll look at him real heavily."

• • •

New Mexico and Texas underscore the GOP's challenges. Obama won New Mexico for the second time in 2012 and left it looking less like the tossup of past elections, including 2004 when George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Republicans will be playing catch-up there in 2016.

In Texas, the GOP will be trying not to lose more ground. The classic Republican "red" state is slowly turning into a battleground, though Hispanic participation in elections still lags. By the 2016 election there will be about 905,000 new Hispanic voters versus fewer than 200,000 new white voters, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.

Is Rubio the antidote?

"Honestly, I would consider him because he's Hispanic," said Julio Sanchez, 19, a business marketing major at the University of Texas at El Paso. "I could always see myself voting Republican. The reason I'm Democrat is that's the way I was raised."

"It's ingrained in us," said Gabriel Lira, 24, who was sitting at a table in the same coffee shop as Sanchez. "Growing up, it was 'Republicans rich, Democrats help the middle class.' I'm interested in having a Hispanic president, but if he's going to be against everything I want, obviously I'm not going to vote for him."

Manuel Alvarez, 22, of Lordsburg, N.M., said he first voted for Obama because he could relate to him as a minority. "With a Hispanic on the ballot, I think a lot of people may look at it as, 'Hey, it's our turn, let's show them who we really are.' " But he too said Republicans would have to make major changes, starting with accepting gays and fixing immigration.

Rubio ran for the Senate in 2010 as a tough-on-immigration candidate. He even opposed the Dream Act, which would help immigrants brought to the United States as children achieve citizenship.

Now Rubio is pushing comprehensive reform that would provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents, and a faster pace for so-called Dreamers.

"The shift is crucial for Rubio to have any ability to attract votes. There's no question it was a political consideration," said Matt Barreto, director of Latino Decisions, an independent polling firm. "He would have had a huge problem if he had not come on board. He would have been attacked as someone who doesn't support the community."

With immigration reform facing hurdles in Congress, the rewards are still out of reach. But consider that 44 percent of Hispanics, including 43 percent who voted for Obama, said they would be more likely to support a GOP candidate who advocated for legislation that includes a path to citizenship, according to a new Latino Decisions poll.

The hope, and challenge, is to turn that into something tangible. Rubio recognizes the limitations of biography.

"Do I think ethnicity is helpful in the ability to identify in your personal story? I'm sure that's always a factor," he said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "But that doesn't mean they are going to vote for someone who stands for things they don't agree on or believe is bad for their future. The way I view our challenge is we have to show people this is what we stand for. That's not a one week, one month or a one-year project. That's an ongoing endeavor."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com.

Marco Rubio brings GOP hope with Hispanics but challenges remain 03/23/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 8:30pm]
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