Democrats have a plan if Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida becomes the first Hispanic on a national ticket: wage a policy battle over immigration.
The strategy has been emerging since the Cuban-American rising star was elected to the Senate in 2010, and it became more apparent after Rubio endorsed Republican front-runner Mitt Romney on Wednesday evening.
The Democratic National Committee immediately responded to Rubio’s endorsement with a statement chiding him and Romney for opposing legislation, backed by President Obama, that would offer citizenship to undocumented workers who enroll in college or join the military.
“Rubio's support for Romney underscores what we already knew: Mitt Romney would have the most extreme immigration platform of any presidential nominee in recent history," said the DNC statement. The line of attack was picked up on Thursday by prominent Hispanic Democrats in a call with reporters organized by the Florida Democratic Party.
“The fact that your last name ends in a vowel isn’t enough. You have to side with Hispanic voters on the issues, and that includes the Dream Act and immigration reform," Democratic consultant Freddy Balsera, an Obama adviser on Hispanic issues, told National Journal.
The Democratic attacks on Rubio are laying the groundwork for an unprecedented battle for the hearts and minds of the increasingly influential Hispanic vote. While Democrats aim to win over Hispanic voters by pushing a policy debate over immigration, Republicans are likely to play up Rubio’s compelling personal story as the child of immigrants.
It’s head versus heart. The Dream Act versus the American dream. Look no further than the messaging from the Romney campaign.
“Marco Rubio is living proof that the American dream is still very much alive,” reads the statement thanking Rubio for his endorsement. “From humble origins, he has risen to become one of the brightest lights in our political party.’’
After leaving Cuba for the United States in 1956, Rubio's parents ultimately settled in Miami. His father worked as a bartender and his mother as a hotel maid and a store clerk. Rubio graduated from law school and became the first Cuban-American leader of the Florida House. Rubio's father died two months before he defeated Florida’s sitting governor in the U.S. Senate race. The charismatic Rubio has repeatedly denied interest in the vice presidency, insisting he wants to serve in the Senate.
"There’s an aspirational quality to Marco that he transmits to other Latinos," said Ana Navarro, Hispanic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. "When he speaks so eloquently about his parents, the immigrant experience, freedom, his experience growing up in a humble immigrant home, I have seen many handkerchiefs around me."
In recent weeks, as Romney has inched closer to the nomination and speculation has increased about Rubio topping the vice presidential short list, the senator has sought to blunt criticism of his position on the Dream Act. He’s suggested he might support a watered-down version that would offer legal status without a pathway to citizenship. “I do want to help out these kids. The Dream Act is a way to help them out,” Rubio said in an interview earlier this month with television personality Geraldo Rivera.
Romney has also tried to soften his position on the proposal. In a nationally televised debate a week before the Florida primary, he suggested he might support the legislation for illegal immigrants who enlist in the military. But in the same debate, pressed about what he would do about the millions of illegal immigrants currently in the country, Romney advocated cracking down on their employers and a process of "self-deportation."
When it comes to immigration policy, Rubio and Romney have followed a similar track. As they have risen in national prominence, their positions have grown more conservative, mirroring the Republican Party's rightward shift in recent years.
Before his 2008 presidential bid, the former governor of Massachusetts made statements that suggested he favored giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. But he has subsequently taken a hard-line stance against "amnesty" and attacked his former rival, Gov. Rick Perry, for signing a Texas law that offered in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. He also ran television ads attacking former Sen. Rick Santorum for approving a federal appointment for Sonia Sotomayor, who went on to become the first Puerto Rican justice on the Supreme Court.
Rubio’s political rhetoric has also changed. Several bills that would have cracked down on illegal immigration died under his leadership of the Florida House. And he initially expressed concern about an Arizona law allowing local police officers to demand citizenship papers.
But as Rubio’s national stature in the tea party movement grew, he increasingly emphasized his opposition to amnesty. In October, he pulled back his previous support for tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants -- even though he had sponsored such a bill in Florida as a state representative.
Pro-immigration and Democratic groups have been quick to seize on any inconsistencies in Rubio’s public statements on Hispanic issues. America’s Voice, which advocates citizenship for undocumented workers, blasted an e-mail on Thursday that said: “Rubio’s second-class Dream Act won’t save Mitt Romney with Latino voters."
A Fox News poll of Hispanic voters earlier this month found 70 percent favored President Obama compared to only 14 percent for Romney. Nine out of 10 Hispanic voters said they support the Dream Act; more than eight out of 10 voters said they back a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Hispanics are the fastest growing slice of the electorate and could swing the 2012 vote in several battleground states, including Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.
"If Mitt Romney puts a Hispanic candidate on the ticket, I don’t think Hispanic voters are going to look at that and say, 'Oh yeah,' and ignore the fact that he opposes the Dream Act," said Obama’s campaign pollster, Joel Benenson. "If you’ve been espousing the policies they have that are pretty harsh on immigration, to think that you can turn your vote numbers around by putting someone on the ticket because they’re Hispanic" won’t work, he said.
Republicans argue that Hispanics, like other voters, care about the economy first and foremost and say the election will be a referendum on the president.
“Perhaps President Obama’s pollster should survey the opinions of the 24 million Americans who are either out of work or underemployed. What he would find is that Hispanics and other minorities have been disproportionately impacted by Obama’s failed economic policies and they are desperately looking for someone like Mitt Romney to create jobs and turn around this bad economy," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.