Sen. Marco Rubio might end up as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate. But as demonstrated at this early stage of the general election campaign, the Florida Republican will be among the former Massachusetts governor’s most high-profile surrogates.
Rubio’s fulfillment of this role — potentially crucial for Romney given the Senator’s position as a leading Hispanic Republican and a conservative stalwart — was on display this past weekend during a lengthy interview on "Fox News Sunday."
In fact, a prescient and strategic Rubio has been preparing to play this role at least since January, when Romney was battling former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) in Florida’s GOP presidential primary.
During a 10-day, late January sprint that was the home stretch of that campaign, the story was Romney’s vicious takedown of Gingrich. But the focus of that intraparty battle, among the bloodiest of a particularly contentious GOP primary, was Rubio.
The freshman tea party favorite would not endorse Romney until much later. But the Senator made crucial statements defending the former governor from attacks by Gingrich charging that Romney was “anti-immigrant.”
As Roll Call reported immediately after the Jan. 31 Florida primary, Rubio was anticipating serving as a major surrogate for the eventual GOP presidential nominee, likely Romney. As the Senator indicated to Roll Call in an interview the day after the primary, he hoped defending Romney on immigration early would mitigate any political mess on the subject he might have to clean up during the general election.
"Heated rhetoric always has that potential," Rubio said on Feb. 1. "You worry about lasting damage done to the persona and the view the voters may have about any individual."
During his discussion with "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace, Rubio was asked to defend Romney on several topics, including his economic and job-growth agenda, his criticism of President Barack Obama over the Chinese dissident who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, his plans to reduce the foreign aid budget, the departure from his campaign of an openly gay foreign policy spokesman and his position on abortion.
But as Rubio expected, he also found himself being asked to answer for Romney’s hardline position on illegal immigration and current lack of support among Hispanic voters.
This dynamic is likely to repeat itself several times in the coming months, particularly given how thorny this issue is for Romney, as illustrated by an Republican National Committee spokeswoman tasked with Hispanic outreach's admission that she wasn't sure what his position on immigration was.
Here are some key moments from the "Fox News Sunday" interview:
WALLACE: Senator, if it's such a good idea, and some analysts says you're helping also to throw a life line to Mitt Romney that he could use to win back Hispanic voters after the very strong anti- illegal immigration positions that he took, all he'll say is he's studying it.
RUBIO: Well, it's impossible to ask him or anyone for that matter to take a firm position on a bill that hasn't been filed yet. We still — we've only discussed this in concept. We still don't have a piece of legislation with the details on it.
But the other thing I would say — and I think this is really important — the vast majority and overwhelming majority of the Hispanics in the United States are here illegally and don't have an immigration problem nor does their family. And to somehow some folks suggest that the Hispanic community is in favor of illegal immigration. That's wrong as well.
Now, the fact of the matter is that if you are in Hispanic community, you probably know someone or have a family member that's been deeply impacted by the illegal immigration problem. And so you are sensitive and compassionate to that. That's why I think it's so important that the Republican Party be clear about the things that we are for.
And that's what Gov. Romney is doing. He is for a legal immigration system that works.
WALLACE: I want to show you some polling numbers. Hispanics make up 46 percent of New Mexico's population, 27 percent in Nevada, 23 percent in Florida and 21 percent in Colorado. And right now, Obama leads Romney among Hispanic voters 67 percent to 27 percent.
As just a professional politician, can Romney win the presidency if Hispanics vote for Obama over him more than 2-to-1?
RUBIO: Well, again, Chris, there is no such thing as the Hispanic vote. I mean, it's as diverse as the country is. I'll give you an example. My cousin is the Democratic leader of the state Senate in Nevada. And yet we come from the same family, same background, same shared experience.
So, some of it depends on where you grew up and where you live and what the politics of the place you live in is. So, Cuban Americans in New Jersey are Democrats. Cuban Americans in Miami tend to be Republicans. I mean, there's a great diversity —
WALLACE: That brings up two points, though. One, you would agree, though, that he can't win the presidency if he loses Hispanics to Obama by more than 2-to-1, wouldn't you?
RUBIO: Well, first of all, every state is different. He's not going to lose Hispanics 2-to-1 in Florida. In fact, I think he has an opportunity to win Hispanics in Florida. I think he has the opportunity in other parts of the country to make a very compelling case.
Look, while there is no such thing as the Hispanic vote, there are some things that unify the Hispanic community. Chief among them is an economic aspiration. They want to do better for themselves, and they want to leave their children better off than themselves.
And I think if you look at the Obama record, it is not upward mobility. It is a record of record job losses and record unemployment, people dropping out of the job search. Hispanics have been disproportionately affected by the Obama administration's, you know, bad policies with regards to the economy.
On the other hand, the American free enterprise system, which is what Mitt Romney is campaigning on, that's the only economic system in the history of the world that allows people to climb out of the circumstances of their birth and live their children better off that themselves. That's a very compelling argument to make to all Americans and especially Americans of Hispanic descent.