As he moves across Florida this week, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is keeping two schedules.
The public one, where he tells friendly, pro-business crowds what he sees as the dangers of Obamacare. And the invite-only one, where he seeks to reconnect with grass-roots conservative activists who have questions — and some outrage — over his involvement in immigration reform.
It’s a two-step plan designed to repair Rubio’s image, which has taken a beating in recent months, darkening the glow of his 2016 presidential prospects.
The last event on Rubio’s public schedule Monday was a meeting in Gainesville with business owners to discuss the federal healthcare law. But he finished the day in a private meeting with Republican activists gathered at a construction company, shaking every hand he could.
Rubio said he believes the current immigration system is broken and that he looks forward to what the more conservative House comes up with. He then went for an emotional closer, connecting the politically treacherous issue to his parents’ story as immigrants from Cuba.
“He owned the room,” said Alex Patton, a Republican consultant in Gainesville who agrees with Rubio on immigration. “I don’t know if he’ll win the argument, but he definitely took the venom out of it.”
The redemption tour continued Tuesday with stops in Tallahassee and Panama City and concluded Wednesday in Pensacola. Other travel is likely as Congress spends the month away from Washington.
To grasp how far Rubio has fallen among a segment of his base, consider a gathering of 300 people in Sarasota last week for a talk by outspoken immigration opponent Dennis Michael Lynch. “As soon as he said ‘Marco Rubio’ the room just went crazy. They booed, they hissed, there were catcalls,” said Richard Swier, a local activist.
A Facebook page that had been titled Panhandle Patriots for Marco Rubio has been renamed Panhandle Patriots Mad at Marco Rubio. It is full of angry sentiment over immigration.
Rubio acknowledges the fallout.
“I don’t think it’s helped me with anybody politically, on either side of the debate,” he said in a radio interview Tuesday morning. “I got involved in it because I felt it’s the right thing to do. Because I feel like what we have today is de facto amnesty.”
Rubio hasn’t talked much about immigration since the Senate bill — which he helped write — passed in June. The bill pours tens of billions into enforcement while providing a 13-year pathway to citizenship for up to 11 million people in the country illegally.
During a 35-minute speech Monday to a Rotary Club in Jacksonville, he spent about 90 seconds on the topic, according to a Bloomberg News report.
He is focused instead on tax reform, and healthcare, which remains deeply unpopular with Republicans. Obama recently announced a one-year delay of a provision requiring businesses to offer insurance or face penalties.
Rubio says that’s reason to delay or throw out the whole law, which requires individuals to have coverage, and has joined a group of tea party-aligned lawmakers in a threat to oppose funding the government if Obamacare funding is not removed.
Immigration has come up in private meetings and in the radio interview. Speaking with WFLA’s Preston Scott in Tallahassee, Rubio repeated his argument about a broken system but also stoked an additional Obama fear.
If Congress does not act, he said, the president could be “tempted” to use the power of his office to legalize millions of people who are here illegally — as he did last year with children of undocumented residents.
“We can’t leave it, in my mind, the way it is,” Rubio said. “Because I think a year from now we could find ourselves with all 11 million people here legally under executive order from the president, but no E-Verify, no more border security, no more border agents, none of the other reforms that we desperately need.”
The executive order idea has gained favor among immigration reform activists as a backup if a bill cannot pass both chambers of Congress.
But Obama has stressed the need for a bill. “The only solution to this problem is for Congress to fix the broken immigration system by passing comprehensive reform,” White House spokeswoman Joanna Rosholm said Tuesday.
Rubio also has taken quiet steps. About six weeks ago he called tea party leader Tim Curtis in Tampa and asked him to set up a meeting of activists.
“I thought it was a robocall. Like many calls it started off with, ‘Hello this is Sen. Marco Rubio.’ There was a pregnant pause and he said, ’Mr. Curtis?’ He said, ‘This is Sen. Marco Rubio, I’d like to talk with you.’”
Curtis said he attended a recent grass-roots meeting with Rubio in Orlando and heard the same argument he gave Monday night in Gainesville.
“He spoke passionately about why he has moved forward on the immigration bill. I disagree with his position but at a minimum he needs to come out and say that to more people.”
Curtis is still waiting for Rubio to follow through with plans to meet in Tampa. “He failed to do that. That’s not a good thing because I’ve got a big mouth.”
Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.