- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sen. Marco Rubio began 2013 as the talk of the town, riding high in 2016 presidential polls and spearheading Republican efforts to woo the Hispanic voting bloc that helped power President Obama to a second term.

But the 42-year-old Floridian and son of Cuban immigrants closed out the year battered and bruised from taking a stand on immigration, being portrayed as a flip-flopper and falling into the shadows of other rising stars in his party.

“He hasn’t had a good year,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican consultant and member of the American Conservative Union. “In some respects, he is a victim of the modern media, which loves to set him up and knock him down. He was part of the 24-hour news cycle that bestowed celebrity status upon him instantly and just as quickly took it away.”

A Quinnipiac University Poll released in December found that just 7 percent of Republican and GOP-leaning voters nationwide named Mr. Rubio as their top choice for president, putting him well behind New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and fellow freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Ten months earlier, the Quinnipiac poll showed Mr. Rubio as the top choice, winning over nearly 20 percent of the respondents.

“The senator’s standing among Republican voters in terms of 2016 has dipped somewhat,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “It is not completely clear why, but other candidates have seen their numbers go up, while some have gone down.”

SEE ALSO: Marco Rubio warns of ‘disengaged’ foreign policy

Some of Mr. Rubio’s allies are fed up with the narrative that Mr. Rubio’s political prospects have dimmed.

“Yada, yada, yada — I’m tired of this ‘Marco Rubio is going through male menopause — hot one moment, cold the next’ storyline,” said Ana Navarro, a Florida-based Republican strategist who led Hispanic outreach on John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. “I’d rather sing Gregorian chants for a week straight than talk about ‘Marco’s roller-coaster year’ again.”

Out on a limb

Mr. Rubio in 2013 became the face of a bipartisan group of eight senators who wrote a sweeping immigration overhaul bill. The proposal picked up momentum in some Republican circles after President Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election.

The effort, though, angered grass-roots conservatives, who said he was being exploited by other members of the group — in particular Mr. McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on the Republican side, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. The bill passed the Senate but has not been taken up by the Republican-led House.

It calls for quick legal status for illegal immigrants but withholds a full pathway to citizenship until after the administration spends more money on border security and creates a national electronic verification system for employers.

SEE ALSO: Sen. Marco Rubio defends vote against short-term debt deal

The earned path to citizenship was the most popular provision for Hispanic voters yet the most controversial for many conservatives, who called it amnesty.

A sign at a tea party protest on the Capitol grounds in June denounced Mr. Rubio as “Obama’s idiot.”

“The thing that is most baffling for me is that this man is willing to lose millions upon millions of votes he could have had from tea partyers for illegal votes that he will not get because he is not a Democrat,” Ken Crow, an Iowa tea party activist, told The Washington Times at the time.

Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said Mr. Rubio seemed to “walk on water” before he entered the immigration debate. Since then, Mr. Cardenas said, some conservatives seem just as eager to jump on the anti-Rubio bandwagon on other issues as well.

“I could see it as fair game to push back on a difference of policy, but the stuff after immigration reform I think has been mostly nitpicking,” Mr. Cardenas said.

Mr. Cardenas said Mr. Rubio’s poll numbers in Florida remain strong and “his voting record as a conservative remains impeccable.”

Some political observers say Mr. Rubio has time to get back into the good graces of Republican voters, though it might not be before the presidential nominating contests kick into gear in a little more than a year.

“He needs to play the long game and stay focused on being solid on policy,” said Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist. “I don’t think there is a huge rush for him. He will have plenty of other times to run. I think 2016 is going to be a little too crowded.”

Changing course?

Under fire from his right flank, Mr. Rubio has distanced himself from the immigration legislation he helped craft, saying he now favors a piecemeal approach over the broader reform bill.

He also supported Mr. Cruz’s no-holds-barred push to defund Obamacare, which many in the Republican establishment blamed for the politically damaging 16-day partial government shutdown, and then opposed the short-term spending bill that reopened the government.

More recently, he voted against the bipartisan deal written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. He warned that the budget plan would make it “harder for more Americans to achieve the American dream.”

Mr. Ryan, also frequently mentioned as a possible 2016 candidate, responded by saying Mr. Rubio should “read the deal and get back to me” and that, “in the minority, you don’t have the burden of governing, of getting things done.”

Others pointed out that Mr. Rubio was opposed to the sequester reductions for the Pentagon that were restored in the budget agreement, which rolled back more than $60 billion in cuts — half of which went to defense programs.

Mr. Gerow said Mr. Rubio’s shifts on immigration and the budget battles have allowed his critics to cast him as a hypocrite and a flip-flopper.

“That is not how you want to be viewed if you want to be the chief executive of the greatest nation,” Mr. Gerow said. “That is where he has to show the world that the narrative of his critics is wrong — that he has a core, that he is willing to take a tough stand and make tough political calls and let the chips fall where they may.”

What is clear, he said, is that Mr. Rubio must avoid a repeat of 2013 if he is seriously considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

“He can’t afford to get twisted around the axle the way he was several times in the past year,” Mr. Gerow said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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