LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- Sorry, Washington superstar, Time magazine coverboy and hip-hop maven, she’s never heard of you.
“Marco Rubio?” said 28-year-old Memorie Annese, taking her daughters to a public library in this city tucked amid soaring mountains and the Rio Grande.
But the Mexican-American, school bus-driving union member who voted for President Barack Obama didn’t hesitate when asked if she would consider a Republican candidate with immigrant roots.
“Heck yeah — if he’s good,” Annese said. “There’s a connection.”
As the Florida senator explores a presidential run, her reaction undercuts Democratic assertions that non-Cuban Hispanics “don’t give a damn about Marco Rubio,” as Obama strategist David Plouffe said recently.
Interviews with voters in Hispanic-rich New Mexico, which Obama won twice, and Texas, a Republican bastion inching Democratic, suggest that Rubio could inspire goodwill and pride among minorities who shunned the GOP in the past two presidential elections.
“Having a president who is Hispanic, I can’t even explain it,” said Esmirna Corona, a college student in El Paso. “If people see Rubio is Hispanic, they’ll take time to check him out. With Mitt Romney, I was like no. Then I looked at his position on immigration and was like definitely not.”
The 2012 election forced a Republican reckoning with the changing face of America. Obama took 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, crucial to his victory over Romney, who said he wanted to make it so hard on immigrants they would choose “self-deportation.” White male voters, the lifeblood of the GOP, are declining as a share of the electorate while Hispanics are rising: 50,000 turn 18 every month.
It is against this rapidly changing backdrop that, Rubio, the 41-year-old bilingual son of working-class immigrants from Cuba, has staked his claim as the GOP’s pied piper, using his charisma and biography to form a new version of hope and change to bring youth and diversity into the Republican fold.
The question is whether he can trump some of the conservative policies that separate him from the Hispanic community — his opposition to Obama’s health care plan and to higher taxes on the rich, for example.
He’s already addressing one key gap. Not long ago Rubio’s hardline position against illegal immigration led critics on Spanish-language radio in Las Cruces to dismiss him as “anti-Hispanic.” Now he is the face of immigration reform, dropping the no “amnesty” posture he adopted in his tea party-tinged 2010 Senate run to champion a proposal that would allow millions of undocumented residents to eventually become citizens.
“It was a huge deal for black people to have Obama. Rubio could do that for Hispanics,” said Lawrence Rosales, 34, an Army MP and Republican who grew up in Las Cruces. “Who better to understand your people than someone who comes from the same background? They are smart to push Rubio.”
Step into Estetica Unisex salon where Alejandro Figueroa, 29, works in El Paso and put the theory to test. He became a citizen in 2010 and voted for Obama last year because, he said, “Republicans look out for Americans, not Latinos.” But someone like Rubio? “If he has good ideas for our people, of course I could change my mind. It’s very important.”