WASHINGTON — Saying once again that he'd turn down the vice presidency even if Mitt Romney begged him to be his running mate, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio pledged instead Thursday to be an envoy this election year to Hispanic voters, particularly on immigration.
In a series of high-profile media events in Washington, Rubio outlined an immigration proposal that's aimed at keeping young people in the United States if they came here illegally as children. He's been talking about the idea for weeks, partly to counter the GOP's reputation for tough rhetoric on immigration, but also because it's a problem that potentially thousands of Florida kids face.
The idea — not yet a formal bill — offers a Republican alternative to the Democratic DREAM Act, legislation that allows a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States as children illegally and opt for the military or college. Rubio and others were newly inspired this spring by the story of Daniela Pelaez, the valedictorian at North Miami Senior High School who was threatened with deportation before congressional intervention.
Yet speaking early in the day at a televised National Journal event about demographic changes among Hispanics, Rubio clearly had the vice presidency on his mind.
"If in four, five, six, seven years from now, if I do a good job as vice president — I'm sorry, as senator — I'll have the chance to do all sorts of things," he said, in a slip that met with laughter from the audience.
Said interviewer Major Garrett: "You all got that, right?"
Rubio recovered from the flub handily, telling the audience that those "all sorts of things" could be, say, NFL commissioner. "Which is where the real power is," he quipped.
He then turned more serious, though, and in two separate interviews Thursday he outlined his immigration strategy. Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010, said he had his home state in mind in addressing this particular immigration problem.
"I don't think anyone would argue that these kids have a legal right to be in this country," Rubio said. "I think their appeal is really more to our conscience, to our humanitarianism, than it is to our laws. A perfect example of that is the refugees, the Cuban-American exile community. This country, when Fidel Castro took over the Cuban island, welcomed hundreds of thousands of Cubans here."
Rubio's proposal allows young people who came to the United States with their parents to have access to non-immigrant visas that allow them to study, and after their studies are complete, allow them to work legally in the United States. Eventually, Rubio said, they gain the same status as other non-immigrant visa-holders and are eligible to apply for residency. Three to five years after they obtain green cards, they're eligible for citizenship.
Rubio's proposal, like the DREAM Act, would have a cutoff date, so new arrivals to the United States couldn't use it as a means to stay in the country.
Advocates of overhauling immigration law say they'd like to see some more details, including how long young people would be non-immigrant visa holders. That's been one of the chief criticisms of Rubio's idea, because it doesn't put young people on a direct path to citizenship as the DREAM Act does.
"It's good to see Sen. Rubio talking to the press about his ideas on reform," said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "But, the time is near for Sen. Rubio to introduce legislative language and define a path forward that secures necessary Republican votes."
That will be one of Rubio's main challenges. By taking up a version of the DREAM Act, he's firmly positioned himself as more moderate on immigration than many of his Republican counterparts — including Romney, who may have Rubio on his short list of running mates. But a new Public Policy Polling survey released Thursday shows Rubio is among a group of politicians — Sarah Palin, Ron Paul and Paul Ryan — who would hurt Romney's chances of defeating Obama if they were running mates.
Hispanic voters are hot this campaign season, with Romney acknowledging earlier this week at a Florida fundraiser that it "spells doom" for the party if Republicans can't persuade Hispanic voters to vote for them in November.
Democrats covet the demographic, too. While announcing a new ad buy this week targeting Hispanic voters, President Barack Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, said the president "stands ready to find common ground." But the president, Messina said, continues to support the DREAM Act backed by Democrats. So does Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat.
Rubio downplayed the effect of his own idea on the election — or as a reason to have a Hispanic surname on the presidential ticket.
"Presidential campaigns are won by the presidential nominee," Rubio said. "I think you pick a presidential candidate because the Constitution says you have to have one. Otherwise, I think most of these folks would go it alone."
He wouldn't say that Romney should back away from some of his previous statements on immigration, including the idea of "self-deportation" that the former Massachusetts governor brought up during a debate just before the Republican primary in Florida.
Rubio said he was hoping to win over Romney on his plan; previously, Romney has said he'd support only a version of the DREAM Act that involved military service.
"I would hope we could convince him to support a concept like this," Rubio said.
In an email response to questions from McClatchy, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said he'd "study and consider any proposals on immigration from his Republican partners."
"We must work together on protecting and strengthening legal immigration, securing our borders," she said, "ending illegal immigration in a civil but resolute manner and ensuring that any reforms do not encourage further illegal immigration."
Rubio, sounding as if he were on the campaign stump for Romney, said the presidential candidate had begun to position himself as someone who was pro-legal immigration, rather than anti-immigration as a whole.
He called Romney "a stark contrast" to Obama on economic issues. And he said that emphasizing those economic issues was the way to win the hearts and minds of Hispanic voters.
"I'll travel anywhere in the country and deliver that message," Rubio said, emphasizing once again that it wouldn't be as a vice presidential nominee, but "as the junior senator from Florida."