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Marco Rubio Hones Foreign Policy Chops in Colombia

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Marco Rubio’s trip to Colombia last weekend highlights his growing role as a player on U.S. foreign policy and some of the assets he might bring to Republicans’ 2012 ticket.

The Romney and Obama campaigns are now stepping up their outreach to Hispanic voters in key swing states such as Florida, Nevada and Arizona.

Experts on Latino voting behavior say Rubio’s appearances in Spanish language media outlets no doubt resonated with Latinos in the United States. But University of Washington professor Matt A. Barreto, who conducts polling on Latino voters as part of the firm Latino Decisions, emphasized that the freshman Senator is starting from a low bar.

In a poll Barreto oversaw in January, 60 percent of registered Latino voters across the country said they had no opinion or had never heard of Rubio. Twenty-five percent of those voters said they would be more likely to vote for a presidential ticket if Rubio is on it, while 19 percent said they would be less likely to do so. In Florida, he’s far more recognized — and popular. According to the January poll, 54 percent of Latino voters in Florida viewed him favorably and 24 percent unfavorably.

“He definitely has a lot of work to do on his name recognition,” Barreto said, particularly among the predominantly Mexican-American voters out West.

He also predicted that as Rubio becomes better known nationally, his unfavorables among Hispanic voters will also go higher, given what Barreto said have been inconsistencies on the key issue of immigration. “He’s going to have a lot of advocacy groups on the left who are attacking him,” Barreto predicted.

That may be part of the reason Rubio has looked to emphasize his foreign policy credentials — a key concern for vice presidential nominees, particularly ones who are relatively inexperienced on the national stage. As the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, the Peace Corps and Global Narcotics Affairs, he has been active on issues ranging from Syria to Cuba to foreign aid.

He butted heads with the Obama administration over policy toward Latin America during his first year in office, particularly the White House response to anti-democratic activities in Cuba and Nicaragua. In general, he has knocked the president for neglecting relations with the United States’ neighbors to the south.

Rubio put a hold on two of the administration’s State Department nominees last year because he was seeking changes in parts of their Latin American foreign policy.

But coming out of Cartagena, Rubio struck an unexpectedly optimistic tone about the administration’s policy toward Latin America. Though Rubio traveled as a representative of the Foreign Relations Committee, he was not part of the president’s official delegation, which did include a few lawmakers.

Still, the Senator said he was pleased with Obama’s stances at the summit, including Obama’s opposition to legalizing the drug trade and including Cuba in future summits — both of which were being pushed by a range of Latin American leaders. Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. tend to be “very concerned about what’s happening back in their countries of origin,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “I imagine they knew Sen. Rubio was [in Columbia] while the rest of the country didn’t.”

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