A crack is forming in U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s tea party.
Conservative activists — still raw over what they say was his role in blocking illegal immigration legislation while speaker of the Florida House — say the burgeoning Republican star needs to deliver on campaign rhetoric for tougher enforcement.
“We’ve been waiting for him to come up with something and to be a leader on this issue,” said Danita Kilcullen, founder of Tea Party Fort Lauderdale.
When President Barack Obama traveled to Texas recently to call for a renewed immigration debate, Rubio said the borders need to be secured before anything. He demanded action on an employment background check system called E-Verify.
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But Rubio has not made an effort to sponsor immigration legislation or even highlight the issue — it is not listed on his website, tea party members note. And he remained on the sidelines as E-Verify was narrowly defeated this month in the Florida Legislature, where Rubio is held in almost holy regard.
Jobs, the national debt and Medicare are dominant themes on Capitol Hill now, not immigration. Still, the flicker of activity, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday upholding part of Arizona’s controversial new law, exposes the pressure and pitfalls facing Rubio.
He is being torn in opposite directions by his base: Washington’s Republican elite and Florida’s grass-roots activists who propelled him into office.
The establishment is eagerly positioning the charismatic 40-year-old son of Cuban exiles as the Hispanic face of the party. The Latino population in the United States has grown 43 times faster than the non-Hispanic white population, rising from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in 2010.
Last week, former Republican Party of Florida chairman Al Cardenas, now head of the American Conservative Union, boasted in Politico that Rubio’s inclusion on a presidential ticket would “almost guarantee” a GOP victory.
The safe route, then, is to avoid being drawn into a serious immigration debate. “If anything, they’re saying [to Rubio] ‘Let’s not talk about this,’ ” said Patrick Davis, a national Republican consultant. “It motivates Hispanics to look at Democrats and Obama.”
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