WASHINGTON — A crack is forming in U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's tea party.
Conservative activists — still raw over what they say was his role in blocking illegal immigration legislation while speaker of the Florida House — say the burgeoning Republican star needs to deliver on campaign rhetoric for tougher enforcement.
"We've been waiting for him to come up with something and to be a leader on this issue," said Danita Kilcullen, founder of Tea Party Fort Lauderdale.
When President Barack Obama traveled to Texas recently to call for a renewed immigration debate, Rubio said the borders need to be secured before anything. He demanded action on an employment background check system called E-Verify.
But Rubio has not made an effort to sponsor immigration legislation or even highlight the issue — it is not listed on his website, tea party members note. And he remained on the sidelines as E-Verify was narrowly defeated this month in the Florida Legislature, where Rubio is held in almost holy regard.
Jobs, the national debt and Medicare are dominant themes on Capitol Hill now, not immigration. Still, the flicker of activity, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday upholding part of Arizona's controversial new law, exposes the pressure and pitfalls facing Rubio.
He is being torn in opposite directions by his base: Washington's Republican elite and Florida's grass roots activists who propelled him into office.
The establishment is eagerly positioning the charismatic 40-year-old son of Cuban exiles as the Hispanic face of the party. The Hispanic population in the United States has grown 43 times faster than the non-Hispanic white population, rising from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in 2010.
Last week, former Republican Party of Florida chairman Al Cardenas, now head of the American Conservative Union, boasted in POLITICO that Rubio's inclusion on a presidential ticket would "almost guarantee" a GOP victory.
The safe route, then, is to avoid being drawn into a serious immigration debate. "If anything, they're saying (to Rubio) 'Let's not talk about this,' " said Patrick Davis, a national Republican consultant. "It motivates Hispanics to look at Democrats and Obama."
Rubio's pledge to vote against the Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants, has struck some Hispanics as particularly offensive.
Still, talk is not enough for the other side of Rubio's base — the conservative activists who provided early momentum for his once long-shot campaign.
"He wants to have it both ways," said George Fuller of Sarasota, who is aligned with several tea party groups. "We're going to be zeroing in on him like a laser."
Alfonso Aguilar, director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Rubio and other Senate Republicans are letting themselves be held hostage by hard-line anti-immigration forces.
"It requires courage," said Aguilar, whose group seeks a middle ground. Rubio "would be the ideal person to say 'I am a strong conservative and I want to work on immigration.'
"But right now he's not leading on the issue and he's not clear. That's a problem."
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Rubio never set himself up as a leader on immigration. Nor for that matter did he see himself as a tea party figure, though he enjoyed the news media attention that came with the label. His Senate campaign focused on fiscal issues and opposing Obama's health care plan.
"Obviously there are important issues that we're facing on the debt, on the creation of jobs, on gas prices," Rubio said in an interview. "Those issues should be the ones we're focused on 100 percent."
He said immigration is important but made it clear he's not in a rush.
"We're trying to figure out who the players are going to be."
Jason Hoyt, 38, a tea party member in Orlando, said he is comfortable with the approach. "I expect him to stand strong on what he has said, but the fiscal issues are the biggest problem of the day."
As Davis, the GOP consultant said, "They didn't elect him to be the next Tom Tancredo," the 2008 Republican presidential candidate who ran on a hard-line immigration platform and once likened Rubio's hometown of Miami to "a third-world country."
Rubio's U.S. Senate campaign took shape as Arizona adopted the nation's toughest immigration law. Rick Scott campaigned for governor saying he wanted an Arizona-style law in Florida.
Rubio struggled with the issue, initially saying he had concerns with the law then backing it when changes were made to prevent racial profiling.
On the campaign trail, Rubio cast himself as the most pro-legal immigration figure in politics, citing his parents' journey from communist Cuba and his wife's Colombian roots.
The legal immigration system needs to "be modernized," he would say. But mostly he preached "border security" and blasted "amnesty" — mandatory talking points for a candidate running in a surging tea party climate that permitted no room for moderation.
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Activists are still angry that under Rubio's watch as speaker of the Florida House, a string of anti-illegal immigration bills died.
"A lot of our members are very suspicious because of how he acted in the Legislature," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a leading activist group.
The organization helped scuttle the 2007 reform plan in Congress that former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez took a lead on. It would have created a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants and enjoyed bipartisan support before collapsing under the weight of heated debate.
Martinez became synonymous with amnesty, a pariah among conservatives. He quit the Senate before his term was finished, opening the seat that Rubio won in November. Ironically, Martinez is back in the mix, participating in recent White House discussions on immigration. His employer, JPMorgan Chase, would not make him available for an interview.
Now Rubio is getting his own attention.
Beck said NumbersUSA members in Florida are contacting Rubio's office asking him to do something on the issue, framing it as a way to improve the jobs climate for Americans and legal immigrants.
"He's supposed to be an up-and-comer," said Joyce Tarnow, a member from North Florida who has traveled to Washington to try to meet with Rubio's staff. "If he truly meant what he said on the campaign trail, show me you're going to do something about it."
Rubio has insisted that he views immigration as a federal issue, not a state one. But with politicians in Washington unwilling to act, state legislatures are, one by one, following Arizona's lead. And Thursday's Supreme Court decision affirmed that states have a right to tackle the issue.
"I'm sick and tired of federal politicians who are afraid of taking on tough issues," said Florida Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Sarasota, who sponsored immigration legislation in the session that just ended.
Activists on both sides flooded the state Capitol and staged angry protests. The Hispanic caucus, many of them Republicans from South Florida, came out against proposals similar to Arizona's. In the end, the focus was on E-Verify, which Rubio says is vital. But as the debate raged, he did not get involved. It died.
"There are a lot of us that know him and like him," Bennett said. "He certainly could have carried a lot of weight."
Rubio's inaction stood in contrast to Florida Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson who went to Tallahassee during the session to denounce an elections bill critics say is designed to stifle voter participation. Nelson urged the Justice Department to investigate.
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In a twist highlighting the politics of immigration, two of the Republicans vying to replace Nelson in 2012 — in part by casting themselves as the next Rubio — have used failure of E-Verify to attack a rival in the primary, Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
But neither George LeMieux nor Adam Hasner have placed blame on Washington, precisely where Rubio says the immigration debate should be waged.
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @learyspt.