WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio’s skittishness on immigration reform in recent days is calculated to send a resounding message to conservatives: I’ve got your back.
That Rubio even has to wave the flag raises the question if conservatives will have his when the bill is revealed this week.
Until now, it has been a steamy affair. Rubio has raced past the title of "rising star" and sits atop early polls for the 2016 presidential nomination. But his ascendency faces its first real challenge with the immigration proposal — underscoring the precarious line he straddles.
The Florida Republican wants to appeal to a broader audience, as signaled by his jumping into the contentious issue. But he is trying not to alienate the conservative forces that got him here.
Rubio, 41, is in search of the sweet spot.
"It’s really hard. Being able to satisfy both of those desires at once really requires a very significant balancing act," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Rubio has built one of the most conservative voting records in Washington, but largely due to the positive arc of his story as the son of Cuban immigrants, and his youthful image, he has managed to avoid being cast as an ideologue.
He is taking cues from the 2012 election when Republicans engaged in a contest of who was more conservative, turning off wide swaths of voters, from minorities to women and the youth. So while Rubio votes conservative, he projects an image closer to the middle.
During a March 25 speech before students at the University of Louisville, Rubio sounded nothing like an uncompromising tea partier bent on destroying government or social programs. "I believe in a safety net," he said. "Not as a way of life but as a way to help those who cannot help themselves."
Taxes are necessary for roads, bridges and fire and police, he told the students, while still dismissing more taxes. Regulations are okay for clean water and air, but not if they impede growth. He talked about the middle class and the burden of student loans.
It’s a balance not unlike what George W. Bush sought with his "compassionate conservatism" or the more uplifting message Ronald Reagan used to bring the GOP from the abyss of extinction.
"He’s trying to demonstrate that you can be a conservative and not be so intractable," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, noting that polls show the public thinks Republicans are too rigid.
A Rubic’s cube
Nothing captures the struggle better than immigration. Rubio seems unsure which way to go: break from the bipartisan Gang of 8 and retreat to his base —which he needs to survive a GOP presidential primary — or press for a major accomplishment that would resonate in a general election and open doors to the fast-growing Hispanic vote.
Over Easter weekend, Rubio expressed concern even as a major breakthrough was reached between labor unions and businesses interests over a guest-worker program. A disagreement between the two sides was a major reason why immigration reform failed in 2007, so there was reason to celebrate.
But less than an hour before Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer was to go on national TV and declare the news, Rubio issued a statement that amounted to throwing a pitcher of cold water in Schumer’s face, a move that pleased conservatives.