Sen. Marco Rubio's role in immigration debate draws tea party criticism and support

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was lifted to national prominence with help from the tea party, but his leadership on immigration reform has elicited strong reaction from members of the conservative movement, from outrage to acceptance.

“A lot of members are saying it’s an amnesty bill. They’re not happy with him,” said Everett Wilkinson of South Florida, who heads the newly named Liberty Federation boasting more than 100,000 members.

Wilkinson said he’s been in contact with Rubio’s office and has asked for information to help explain Rubio’s thinking to tea party members.

“Most of them are upset. We feel there’s other issues he could be focused on,” Wilkinson said, citing the debt. “It could hurt him with the tea party but it’s too early to say. This whole thing could go off like an Acme rocket. You never know what direction it’s going to go. He may hop off it.”

But Henry Kelley of the Florida Tea Party Network said members he’s been in touch with are generally supportive of Rubio’s approach, which calls for tougher enforcement before a pathway to citizenship kicks in.

“I’ve always said ’round them up and throw them out’ is not a strategy,” Kelley said. “It’s time to deal with this. I don’t see this as amnesty.”

Since joining the debate last month, Rubio has aggressively sold his message to just about anyone who will listen. On Tuesday alone he appeared on Univision, Telemundo, CNN en Espanol, Fox News’ American Morning and did interviews with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee and Mark Levin, an ultra-conservative radio host.

Largely he has quieted dissent from conservative thought leaders, providing hope that he can deliver Republican votes.

But in recent days another side has surfaced. The headline on a piece Wednesday by an editor from National Review was headlined “Marco Rubio’s bad deal.” Erick Erickson of the influential Red State blog wrote: “I don’t like Marco Rubio’s plan. There I said it.”

Twitter has lit up with criticism.

@SteveNewcomer wrote: “How quick the Tea Party candidates turn! RUBIO IS ANOTHER SELL-OUT!”

@BarryOCommunist wrote, “@marcorubio you’re dead to me. No this isn’t a threat but rather an observation. You’re a sell out just like the rest of #GOP.”

Twitter is hardly a scientific guide of public sentiment but the grief has been steady. Rubio is also receiving praise. “I appreciated your honesty and passion while on Limbaugh,” wrote Robert C. Howington, who describes himself on Twitter as a school teacher, home builder and conservative.

Rubio has a special relationship with the tea party. Though he was long an establishment Republican, serving nine years in the Florida House, the tea party gave him a boost in his 2010 U.S. Senate race against then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.

Rubio played down the political implications, saying feedback he’s gotten has been helpful. His office has been interacting with tea party members on immigration for the past year and a conference call is being considered as the debate begins to reach a boil.

“I wouldn’t call it backlash,” Rubio said in an interview Thursday. “Look, there are people that have very bad memories about some of the efforts in the past that have been made to reform immigration.”

He stressed that the plan he’s signed onto is only a set of principles that need to be formed into legislation.

Asked about the risk of being invovled, he said, “I haven’t done a political analysis of this. I just think this country has a problem and we have to address it once and for all.”

There’s little doubt Rubio, who campaigned in 2010 on a mostly hard-line approach to immigration, sees the shifting mood. How successful the GOP is in reversing its declining support among Hispanics could help determine Rubio’s fortunes as a future presidential candidate.

Rubio acknowledges that fixing immigration alone won’t turn Hispanics to the GOP but says it will clear the way for him and others to pitch the virtues of smaller government.

“I understand there are those who will not support any effort,” he wrote in response to Erickson’s critical blog. “Some raise valid points and I respect their views. But in the end, to leave things the way they are now is de facto amnesty and a barrier to accomplishing important government reforms in other areas. It is no way to run a nation of immigrants.”