WASHINGTON — Before anyone thought Marco Rubio had a chance at winning the U.S. Senate race against Charlie Crist, a magazine cover audaciously declared, "Yes, HE CAN."
The National Review spotlight in September 2009 gave him credibility and fueled an anemic campaign account. "It was the first of several major turning points in the race," Rubio wrote in his book. "Supporters who were trying to attract donors to our cause now had a flattering article in a respected conservative publication to use."
The golden pat on the back is now a kick in the gut.
"Rubio's Folly," reads the latest National Review cover, featuring the Florida Republican laughing so hard his eyes are closed, sandwiched between Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and Republican Sen. John McCain, fellow members of the immigration reform-leading Gang of Eight.
Two weeks after their bill was released, critics have focused on Rubio, a strategy designed to chip away at his support because it is vital to gaining votes from other Republican lawmakers.
"He's the face of the bill. In a sense, it's a strategy, but in a sense it's not. I mean, who else is out there selling the bill?" said Mark Krikorian, author of the National Review article. "They need Rubio to dampen conservative opposition. If he walks away, it's all over."
Rubio started out strong, embarking on a media blitz to sell the ideas to conservative commentators such as Sean Hannity. But with the hulking bill now public, the opposition's voice is growing, on talk radio and blogs and social media. More Republican lawmakers have raised objections. Two protests have been held in Florida.
"He was a tea party darling until he went to D.C. and played us," Christine Timmon said Wednesday in Port St. Lucie, her words amplified by a TV news report that showed people wearing Rubio's 2010 campaign buttons with a black line through them.
The worry for Rubio, who as a Senate candidate adopted a harder-line immigration stance that pleased the conservative base, is that it metastasizes into something larger than rallies with a couple of dozen people, Twitter taunts or a billboard being put up in Georgia that tells people to stop the "RubiObama Amnesty."
• • •
Immigration helped end the career of the last Republican Cuban-American senator from Florida, Mel Martinez. Activists who opposed allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship mailed bricks to Martinez, a symbolic sign that the border needed to be built up, and hounded him as a moderate throughout the debate in 2007. His popularity plummeted and in 2009, Martinez resigned, setting off the Crist-Rubio battle to fill the seat.
"The opposition was small but extremely vocal. They had one message and they kept tying anything we did to the word 'amnesty,' " said Ken Lundberg, a former Martinez spokesman. "The longer the issue lingered, the more momentum the opposition gained, even though we had a broad base of support. At the end of the day, achieving reform would have been like catching lightning in a jar; instead, we wound up with a lightning rod."
For key reasons, it hasn't gotten to that point for Rubio.
More Republicans than ever support immigration reform, thanks to the 2012 election results. Evangelical leaders are on board along with law enforcement and business, a GOP-friendly coalition that did not exist in 2007. Two conservative groups have run TV ads featuring Rubio making the case for reform, the latest running exclusively on Fox News. And Rubio still has a deep well of trust among conservatives. In Pasco County last week, he got a standing ovation after a speech that touched on immigration.
"Marco is showing leadership," former Gov. Jeb Bush said. "He is taking political risk on behalf of good policy. That is the way it should be. He is to be commended for his courage on this subject."
Caught between conflicting forces, Rubio is now trying to offer an olive branch to the right, urging critics to offer ways to fix the bill. In a column Friday in the Wall Street Journal, he talked about the coming week, when the Senate will begin the bill "mark up," by which it can be changed.
Referring to broadcast media, blogs and social media, he wrote: "I've been listening to the voices on these platforms and taking notes about ways to improve the immigration-reform legislation."
When the bill was released, Rubio's press office heralded news reports casting the security measures as the strongest in history. But in the Journal, Rubio conceded there is room to strengthen security "triggers" that must be in place before millions of people are legalized.
He also talked about cleaning up waivers scattered in the bill, though he did not provide specifics. "For those who believe the road ahead for illegal immigrants is too generous or lenient, Congress will have a chance to make it tougher, yet still realistic," he wrote.
• • •
Rubio, who declined to be interviewed, has tried to use President Barack Obama as a foil, asserting he hasn't enforced current immigration law — ignoring, among another things, that deportations have hit record numbers — and saying Democrats can't be trusted to do immigration themselves.
"He's been out there selling really, really hard," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said on a conference call with reporters Friday. "But I would say there are flaws — big time — in the bill. The question is, will the bill sponsors, the Gang of Eight, circle the wagons, stick together as they promised to do, and defend the bill, or will members actually help us strengthen it?"
Sessions is the leading immigration reform critic on Capitol Hill, and a veteran of the 2007 battle. He conceded momentum was on the pro-reform side but said it was the same way initially six years ago. On Friday, Sessions touted a study that suggested the bill would create 30 million new legal U.S. residents or workers over the next decade with flows of new legal residents growing with time. "Dangerous," he called it.
One of the chief problems with the bill, critics say, is people can seek provisional legal status about six months after the bill is enacted; the security wouldn't have to be in place, only a plan. Also, a provision requiring immigrants to pay back taxes is fuzzy and seems difficult to enforce.
At more than 800 pages, the bill has been compared to Obama's health care law for its complexity, waivers and pet projects, such as one that would help Florida's cruise ship industry hire foreign workers in emergency situations. Rubio pushed for it, but his office insists it was not for a specific industry or state. Another provision would allow for more foreign ski instructors, which would help in Colorado, home of Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democratic member of the Gang of Eight.
The Heritage Foundation, run by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the first Washington figure to embrace Rubio in his run against Crist, is preparing to release an updated study that shows making 11 million new legal residents will carry a huge cost.
The study has come under fire from other conservative groups, which say it uses flawed methodology and underestimated economic contributions. Still, DeMint is effective at marshalling conservative opposition.
On Thursday, Rubio got some unlikely (and no doubt unwanted) help from Organizing for Action, the extension of Obama's campaign machine. About 20 people showed up in the rain for a rally outside his office in Palm Beach Gardens.
"How do you think it would look like if here, a child of immigrants himself, backs out of this legislation after he's gone all-in for it?" asked organizer Rachelle Litt, who said the group would do more to back Rubio. "He's got to put up a fight. The American people don't want the minority to be their voice any longer."
Contact Alex Leary @[email protected]