WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio's skittishness on immigration reform in recent days is calculated to send a resounding message to conservatives: I've got your back.
That Rubio even has to wave the flag raises the question if conservatives will have his when the bill is revealed this week.
Until now, it has been a steamy affair. Rubio has raced past the title of "rising star" and sits atop early polls for the 2016 presidential nomination. But his ascendency faces its first real challenge with the immigration proposal — underscoring the precarious line he straddles.
The Florida Republican wants to appeal to a broader audience, as signaled by his jumping into the contentious issue. But he is trying not to alienate the conservative forces that got him here.
Rubio, 41, is in search of the sweet spot.
"It's really hard. Being able to satisfy both of those desires at once really requires a very significant balancing act," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Rubio has built one of the most conservative voting records in Washington, but largely due to the positive arc of his story as the son of Cuban immigrants, and his youthful image, he has managed to avoid being cast as an ideologue.
He is taking cues from the 2012 election when Republicans engaged in a contest of who was more conservative, turning off wide swaths of voters, from minorities to women and the youth. So while Rubio votes conservative, he projects an image closer to the middle.
During a March 25 speech before students at the University of Louisville, Rubio sounded nothing like an uncompromising tea partier bent on destroying government or social programs. "I believe in a safety net," he said. "Not as a way of life but as a way to help those who cannot help themselves."
Taxes are necessary for roads, bridges and fire and police, he told the students, while still dismissing more taxes. Regulations are okay for clean water and air, but not if they impede growth. He talked about the middle class and the burden of student loans.
It's a balance not unlike what George W. Bush sought with his "compassionate conservatism" or the more uplifting message Ronald Reagan used to bring the GOP from the abyss of extinction.
"He's trying to demonstrate that you can be a conservative and not be so intractable," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, noting that polls show the public thinks Republicans are too rigid.
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Nothing captures the struggle better than immigration. Rubio seems unsure which way to go: break from the bipartisan Gang of 8 and retreat to his base —which he needs to survive a GOP presidential primary — or press for a major accomplishment that would resonate in a general election and open doors to the fast-growing Hispanic vote.
Over Easter weekend, Rubio expressed concern even as a major breakthrough was reached between labor unions and businesses interests over a guest-worker program. A disagreement between the two sides was a major reason why immigration reform failed in 2007, so there was reason to celebrate.
But less than an hour before Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer was to go on national TV and declare the news, Rubio issued a statement that amounted to throwing a pitcher of cold water in Schumer's face, a move that pleased conservatives.
"He can't afford to let an idiot like Chuck Schumer grab the headlines and say 'Yes, we're all in agreement,' " said Tim Curtis, chairman of the Tampa 9/12 Project.
Rubio didn't object to the substance of the deal; rather he called for a deliberate public hearing process — concerns already expressed by conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Rubio showed fresh doubts last week when a Republican study suggested legalizing millions of immigrants would cost billions if those people got access to government programs like health care.
Is it posturing or genuine concern?
"It raises questions for those of us in the Latino community whether he's serious about reform or he's focused on 2016 and his own ambition. I would hope not," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
"There's a lot of pressure on Rubio," said Duffy. "He's trying to be that different Republican."
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At the same time, though, he is plunging into conservatism.
• Last month, Rubio joined a handful of Republicans, including new tea party darling Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, in a threatened filibuster of any gun control legislation moving through the Senate following the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Rubio opposes even expanded background checks for gun buyers — a measure more than 90 percent of Americans support.
• When tea party Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky went on a marathon filibuster against the Obama administration over use of drones, Rubio made his way to the Senate floor to stand with him — a move that lit up conservative websites and social media. (Rubio doesn't share Paul's worry over drones, but Obama bashing is always good GOP politics.)
• In February, Rubio was one of 22 Republicans to vote against the Violence Against Women Act, even though it contained human trafficking provisions he worked on.
• In January, he was one of only eight Republicans to vote against a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" that preserved tax cuts for the middle class while raising them on the wealthy.
Rubio's score last year with the Club for Growth made him the seventh-most conservative member of the Senate. He scored even better — fourth — with Heritage Action.
Recent actions fit the record but also grant Rubio some breathing room as he works on immigration.
"The most generous interpretation is he's saying 'I'm one of you and we can do immigration,' " said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform America's Voice. "The less generous is 'I'm so determined to be one of you that if the pressure gets turned up, I'll walk.'
"His calling card for 2016, to be blunt, is he's conservative and can appeal to Latinos. But he's not going to have broad appeal to Latinos outside Florida if he doesn't help pass immigration reform. At the end of the day, he's going to have to stand up to some on the right in order to produce a huge result."
Rubio declined to be interviewed for this story.
His spokesman, Alex Conant, said there's no connection between Rubio's conservative moves and his work on immigration.
"He's been very clear since the start of this process about where he stood," Conant said, referring to Rubio's insistence on strong border security measures and a tough road to citizenship. "We still have a lot of support."
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As details of the legislation are released, the confidence will be tested.
"Since coming to the Senate, Marco Rubio has demonstrated the conservative bona fides that launched him to victory in his 2010 primary campaign," said Dan Holler, a Heritage spokesman.
"That said, although a comprehensive amnesty bill may be favored by the party elite, it is not favored by the base," Holler added. "If Rubio walks away or convinces conservatives he got everything he asked for in the bill, he could escape relatively unscathed. Regardless, this will likely be a defining moment for Rubio and how he is viewed by conservatives."
A survey released last week by the Washington Post-ABC News showed 57 percent of all Americans support a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented residents living in the United States. But among self-identified Republicans, support fell to 35 percent.
"One measure of a leader is a willingness to run toward complex problems," said conservative consultant Keith Appell. "Many politicians do the latter and Rubio's not doing that. But the waters are tricky. In some ways this is an acid test for him."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]