WASHINGTON — With growing signs that Hispanic voters are turned off to GOP positions on immigration, Sen. Marco Rubio is trying to use his national profile to deliver a message to his party: Tone it down.
"The Republican Party should not be labeled as the anti-illegal immigration party. Republicans need to be the pro-legal immigration party," the Florida lawmaker said Monday on Fox News.
The appearance follows other efforts in the past two weeks — including a story in the Wall Street Journal and a speech in Texas — in which Rubio has criticized inflammatory immigration rhetoric.
"You're talking about somebody's mothers and grandmothers and brothers and sisters," Rubio, the 40-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, said in Dallas.
His efforts constitute a tricky act of political maneuvering. Rubio, viewed by GOP leaders as a powerful draw for Hispanics, is trying to sound a more welcoming note without alienating the grass roots conservatives who swept him into office in 2010 and who are vociferously pushing for tighter enforcement.
And his willingness to step out on a contentious issue is sure to fuel talk that he's interested in a vice presidential spot, despite repeatedly insisting otherwise.
Rubio even visited the U.S.-Mexico border while in Texas, going to a spot near where President Barack Obama visited after criticism that Obama had not seen the security challenge for himself.
"It's safe to say that he (Rubio) feels an incentive to build up his image," said Stanford University political science professor Gary M. Segura.
Segura does polling for Latino Decisions, which released a survey last week showing Hispanics still favor Obama by a wide margin nationally.
A recent Suffolk University poll showed that if Rubio were on the ballot, the Republican presidential nominee would win Florida. For all his popularity in Florida, however, Rubio is still little known among Hispanics in other states.
Rubio has not pointed fingers when criticizing harmful rhetoric though there are plentiful examples, including presidential candidate Herman Cain's suggestion that the United States build an electric fence at the border.
Obama, who got two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008, has seen his approval rating slip among Hispanics, who face higher unemployment than the general population. But Republicans continue to face issues with the demographic because of immigration.
An August Latino Decisions tracking poll showed that 72 percent of Hispanic voters said Republicans either "don't care too much" or are "hostile" to the community. Last week, voters in Arizona recalled the architect of the state's controversial anti-immigration law, which has been replicated in other states, most recently in Alabama.
Experts say Rubio is correct in arguing that less heat around the issue would help Republicans.
"The rhetoric raises the attention of the rank-and-file voter of what's being done on the policy level," Segura said. But, he added, "even if you get rid of all the nasty things you say, there is what you do."
Rubio says the GOP should focus on modernizing the legal immigration system.
During a speech before the conservative Federalist Society last week in Washington he proposed changes to the visa system to allow high academic achievers to stay in the United States or to bring in job creators. Rubio also said the guest worker program could be improved.
Those proposals would do little, however, and ignore the bigger question: What to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country?
"He's stating the obvious," said Tyler Moran, policy director for the National Immigration Law Center. "It's good Rubio is stepping out, but it has to be followed by action. His actions in the Senate haven't matched this new rhetoric."
Beginning with the 2010 campaign, Rubio has adopted the Republican line on tough enforcement policy, sometimes seeming to contradict himself. For example, as a state representative he co-sponsored legislation to give children of illegal immigrants in-state college tuition but now says he opposes that.
He initially indicated he was against the Arizona law but then he supported it after changes were made, ensuring he would not suffer among the conservative base he was courting in the race against then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
In the Senate, Rubio opposes the DREAM Act, which would create a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants. He also supports a background check for workers called E-Verify.
Democrats say those stances and others — once highlighted on a national stage —would push Hispanics away.
But the potential upside to Rubio's softer approach came across during the speech in Washington.
Abel S. Delgado, a 23-year-old Miami native who attends Tulane University Law School, said he had been turned off to Rubio over some of the stances he took during the campaign.
"I thought that was more because of the national tea party pressure," said Delgado, a Republican. "He seemed to backtrack from that today. He seems to have more of an understanding of the immigration issue than most politicians on either side. That's why he should be working on this."