U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio backtracked Thursday from his statement that the U.S. census should count only "legal American citizens," temporarily shifting his surging campaign into damage control.
Rubio still favors excluding illegal immigrants from the formulas that dole out $400 billion in federal aid and seats in Congress. His position puts him at odds with his opponent, Gov. Charlie Crist, and many other elected officials who say leaving out illegal immigrants would keep the state from getting its fair share.
"It would be pretty damaging to Florida," Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said at a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday promoting a thorough count. "The reality is, whether you like it or not, there are undocumented, illegal people in the state. Pretending they're not there, not counting them, doesn't make them go away."
State Rep. Esteban Bovo of Hialeah, chairman of the Hispanic caucus in the Florida House and a Rubio supporter, said, "So much funding is tied to the census, and to be undercounted could have devastating effects down the line. … I really don't want our community to get shortchanged."
Rubio's stance on the census reflects a down-the-line conservative message that has helped him overtake the more politically moderate governor in polls of Republican primary voters. But in a rare misstep, Rubio retreated from a statement that suggested the census should exclude the tens of thousands of Caribbean and Latin American residents who live legally in Florida but are not citizens.
A statewide campaign aims to increase participation in minority communities that are traditionally undercounted in the census, depriving the state of federal dollars for public schools, health care and other services. Rubio's political mentor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, appointed a "complete count" committee to help the 2000 Census get an accurate count of all types of residents, including illegal immigrants and the homeless.
"It's incredibly important that every single person be counted because every single person does count," Crist told a gym packed predominantly with African-American and Haitian-American students at North Miami High School on Monday.
Rubio, who frequently says that his campaign is about ideas, declined to return phone calls about the census from the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald over two days. He took issue with Crist's position in a written statement released Wednesday.
"When it comes to political apportionment, the census should count legal American citizens only," he said. "Gov. Crist's position to include illegal immigrants in this count would dilute the voting power of every American citizen. It would actually incentivize politicians to perpetuate our broken immigration system by rewarding states with large illegal immigrant populations with a louder voice in Washington."
Rubio sent out another statement Thursday clarifying that he thought the census formulas that determine funding and political clout should exclude illegal immigrants, not legal residents. Even the revised statement drew a sharp rebuke from a national Hispanic leader.
"Mr. Rubio needs to read the U.S. Constitution because it says the census is an enumeration of all persons," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "It doesn't mean all citizens. It doesn't mean all people who are white. It doesn't mean all voters. It means all people."
The organization gave Rubio a public service award in 2007, when he began his term as the first Cuban-American leader of the Florida House.
"That was a very different Marco Rubio," Vargas added. "The Marco Rubio we honored then was much more of an advocate of the immigrant community."
As House speaker, Rubio quashed several bills that would have penalized farmers who hire illegal workers, required proof of citizenship to receive government benefits, encouraged police to turn in suspected illegal immigrants and allowed illegal immigrants serving time to be deported to their home countries.
As a Senate candidate, Rubio has stressed "no amnesty" when audiences ask him about illegal immigrants. He has said he hasn't changed his position on withholding citizenship from illegal immigrants, but that immigration-related matters should be federal, not state, issues.
"When I provide services to the residents of our community, I don't ask them for immigration status," said Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who has not taken sides in the Senate race. "I think we would make a grave mistake if we sent a message that would alienate even more the immigrants in our community."
Miami Herald Washington correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.