MIAMI--It took Marco Rubio just 26 minutes to do on Friday what none of the leading Republican presidential candidates have accomplished during months and months on the campaign trail.
Passionately and persuasively, Florida's junior senator made the conservative case for sweeping immigration reform and called on his party to take the lead on the issue. The Cuban-American on every Republican's short list for vice president also personally offered himself as a leader on immigration reform, although he offered few details. "I don't have a magic answer,''said Rubio, who until recently has avoided injecting himself into the sticky debate.
The speech to hundreds of people at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference was a testament to Rubio's star power and a subtle commentary on the limits of the Republican contenders, who have talked little about immigration beyond condemning undocumented workers for breaking the law and demanding stronger border security.
"Dividing people along the lines of immigration has proven to be rewarding to politicians on the left and the right,'' Rubio said. "So for those who come from the conservative movement, we must admit that there are those who among us who have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable, unexcusable, and we must admit--myself included--that some times we've been too slow to condemn that language for what it is.''
The negative tone has some Republicans worried that the party is alienating the fastest-growing slice of the electorate and handing President Obama a second term. As Rubio's onetime mentor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is co-chairing the conference, pointed out on CNN on Thursday night, "I don't think a party can aspire to be the majority party if it's the old white-guy party.''
With Florida's high-stakes primary just four days away, the conference offered a platform for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to court the influential Hispanic community. Wide support from the nearly three in four Republican voters in Miami-Dade who are Hispanic helped John McCain win the Florida primary in 2008 and could swing Tuesday's vote.
Rubio set himself apart from the 2012 field on a couple of policy points. Romney and Gingrich have suggested they might support a pathway to citizenship for children who have been brought to the U.S. illegally only if they enrolled in the military, but not for those who attend college. Rubio did not make that distinction when he talked about the Dream Act.
"I think there is broad bipartisan support for the notion that we should somehow figure out a way to accommodate them,'' he said. "I hope that we as Republicans and we as conservatives take the lead in solving this problem. It's not just the right thing to do, but it speaks to our hopes and dreams as a nation.''
Rubio also made it clear he does not favor deporting the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, although he didn't spell out how to deal with their undocumented status. Gingrich is the only major candidate who has advocated allowing some long-term illegal residents to stay in the U.S.
Overall, Rubio proved why he's one of the GOP's brightest stars in a speech laced with self-deprecating humor, emotional testimonials to the sacrifices of his immigrant parents, and even poetry by Emma Lazarus. He offered a powerful defense of the free-enterprise system and was masterful at diffusing potentially awkward moments. When a handful of young protesters who support the Dream Act interrupted his speech and were escorted out of the room, he praised them for raising the issue.
Rubio also addressed recent reports that he has inaccurately described his parents as "fleeing'' Fidel Castro, since they arrived before he took power in Cuba. "It created some difficult, you know, uncomfortable days,'' Rubio said, but added that the controversy "was a blessing in disguise'' because it motivated him to learn more about his parents' lives.
Rubio laid out a vision of a "functional'' guest-worker system, a better visa system, an electronic system for employees to verify legal status, and, yes, increased border security. He spoke of the realities of immigrant labor in the fields and on construction sites and of reaching a bipartisan consensus on the Dream Act.
"It was a landmark speech,'' said Republican consultant Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County school board member and a former adviser to Gov. Rick Perry on Hispanic issues. "We've needed one of our national leaders to stand up and say, 'Let's talk about this issue head on. Let's stop dividing the country.' ''
Rubio has been walking a careful line on immigration since his 2010 Senate campaign, seeking to welcome Hispanics into the GOP while also appeasing the tea party movement that helped him win election. As the leader of the Florida House, Rubio steered clear of proposals to crack down on illegal immigration, but as a U.S. Senate candidate, he adopted his party's hard line against "amnesty.''
In October, he retreated from his previous support for offering in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants. He has opposed the current form of the Dream Act and backed Arizona's controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants.
“We welcome Senator Rubio’s new tone and call for bipartisan action,'' said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a leading proponent of comprehensive immigration reform. "But we’ll know he’s serious when he announces new policy positions and brings fellow Republican senators to the negotiating table with Democrats.''