In the wake of the election, Republican leaders and political operatives have warned their rank-and-file lawmakers that they risk becoming unelectable at the national level unless they find a way to woo Hispanics.
In a postelection interview at a Washington Ideas Forum, Mr. Rubio said, “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother.”
“He is sticking his neck on a limb a bit, but it is a very calculated move, and he is one of the few people in the party who can do it,” he said.
After he joined the senators in releasing the immigration framework Monday, Mr. Rubio went on a charm offensive to try to win over some of the most powerful voices in conservative media. He conducted interviews with radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News’ Sean Hannity, assuring them that he will insist on more border security as part of any legalization deal.
“What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “You are recognizing reality.”
Mr. Rubio on Tuesday also warned Mr. Obama — who was unveiling his own immigration reform blueprint in an address in Las Vegas — against trying to push the senators too far to the left.
“The president’s speech left the impression that he believes reforming immigration quickly is more important than reforming immigration right,” he said.
Despite the approval from conservative talk-show hosts, the politics of the issue could prove perilous for Mr. Rubio — in particular, his embrace of a path to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally.
“I think they have probably overstepped a little,” said Aubrey Jewett, associate chairman of the political science department at the University of Central Florida, who has followed Mr. Rubio’s career. “I think they might be able to finesse through something where illegal immigrants are legalized through work permits. But as far as where, over a period of time, those folks get a path to citizenship, I think there is going to be a huge backlash, not from the Republican establishment but from the Republican base.”
Al Cardenas, American Conservative Union chairman and a Rubio mentor, said there is a potential downside in “passing [a proposal] with a path to amnesty component that is not acceptable” to conservatives.
Mr. Cardenas, a fellow Cuban-American, downplayed the notion that Mr. Rubio’s push is fueled by political ambitions and called his stance “courageous.”
“With Marco’s charisma and rise to a figure of national prominence, taking a risk of this nature is not what a political strategist would tell him to do — because he does not need the potential downside of this. He understands fully that he is going to incur the wrath of quite a few folks in the [conservative] movement and bear the brunt of that,” Mr. Cardenas said. “At this point, it is wait and see.”