Can Marco Rubio Save the GOP?

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Kurtz

Republicans have blown up their support among Hispanics with angry blasts on immigration-which puts the party's leading Latino right in the line of fire.

If the Republican Party has a secret plan to alienate Hispanic voters, it is doing a bang-up job. These days it seems that the party has greeted the fastest-growing segment of the population by unfurling a massive ANot WelcomeA banner. GOP leaders in Arizona and Alabama have passed sweeping crackdowns designed to give undocumented workers the boot. Herman Cain muses publicly about an electrified border fence that would kill trespassers. Michele Bachmann says she wouldn't lift a finger for the children of people in this country illegally because Awe don't owe them anything.A

And Republican contenders who dare to stray from the hard line tend to get hammered for it. When Rick Perry touted his Texas program offering in-state tuition benefits to some undocumented students, his conservative rivals tore him apart; he has yet to recover. In a debate last week, Newt Gingrich took a gamble in urging a AhumaneA policy of not kicking out immigrants Aif you've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law.A Rival Mitt Romney (who insists he didn't know illegal workers were mowing his lawn) promptly accused Gingrich of peddling Aamnesty.A Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says that he's offended by Gingrich's ArepositioningA and that Awe stridently disagree it's compassionate to allow people to jump the line and break the law.A

All of which makes this a particularly tricky time for the party's leading Latino star--who just happens to be on most Republicans' shortlists for vice president.

Marco Rubio, the freshman senator from Florida, talks about immigration in a far more sensitive way than many of those who would hire him as their No. 2 in the White House. He does not wander far from the party line. But he doesn't exactly embrace it, either.

AThis is not just a theoretical argument,A Rubio told me during a recent visit to his Capitol Hill office, emotion creeping into his voice. AYou're talking about people's neighbors, people's moms, people's sisters, people's brothers, their loved ones, maybe their spouse or their children. You know kids that have grown up here their entire lives but are undocumented.A His dark eyes flash as he imagines the plight of those who cross the border illegally: AIf your kids are hungry and hurting and living in a dangerous environment, there's very little you won't do to help them.A

Yet Rubio's passion hasn't caused him to break with the conservative GOP establishment. He straddles the border between living and limiting the American Dream.

One year after his upset victory, Rubio is constantly touted as a surefire asset for the 2012 ticket. He is, without question, a running mate out of central casting: young, fresh-faced, Hispanic, and aggressively conservative, with the potential to deliver a crucial swing state. AHe's a future superstar--a dynamic, attractive candidate with a beautiful family who gives you potential inroads in the Hispanic community,A says veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins.

Rubio insists he's not interested in a VP bid, saying the party can't solve its Hispanic problem just by drafting Aa person whose name ends in a vowel.A His team welcomes the veep chatter because it gives him a larger megaphone, but wants to preserve his option of running for president in 2016--which Rubio would forfeit if his ticket beat President Obama this time around.

How badly does the GOP need him on the ticket? Obama, who captured two thirds of the Latino vote in 2008, has disappointed Hispanic leaders--giving the Republicans an opening to make gains. But today's GOP has drifted far from the immigrant-friendly platform of George W. Bush, who pushed for a path to citizenship for the nation's 12 million illegals. …