Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is carving out a peacemaking role for himself. He wants his fellow Republicans to stick to their conservative values, but in the nicest possible way. His motto is, “Work with the opposition when you can. Disagree nicely when you can’t.”
It’s a tough concept to execute in a fiercely divided country and a gridlocked Congress. Rubio offered a bipartisan olive branch on immigration, proposing to allow unauthorized teens who have lived most of their lives in the United States to legally stay but not to become citizens. He worked with Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Christopher Coons of Delaware on legislation to expand high-skilled immigration.
But Rubio, a rising star and a prominent Latino conservative, also takes care to assure Republicans that he’s on their side. He craftily wraps his “be nice” message in criticism of President Obama. Obama “promised to elevate the American political discourse. That is all gone now,”
Rubio said on Tuesday as he met with South Carolina delegates at their resort hotel in Innisbrook, Fla. “Surely, both sides say things that aren’t nice … but Democrats are downright vicious.”
Rubio will address his largest audience yet on Thursday night, when he is scheduled to introduce Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee for president. He has been given 20 minutes to speak to fired-up party activists in person and millions of viewers on prime-time television.
“No big deal,” he joked. “No pressure.” In an obvious road test for his speech, Rubio said that his immigrant roots give him a unique perspective on the special qualities of the United States. His parents worked as a maid and a bartender so that he could have a white-collar career. “Up until America, everyone in the world was poor,” he said. “If you were born in a poor family, you were poor.”
Bet on this as the crowning applause line from Rubio: “The goal is not that America becomes more like the rest of the world, but the rest of the world becomes more like America.”
He is doing his best to avoid the political missteps of his Senate predecessor, affable fellow Cuban Mel Martinez, who resigned from his seat in 2009. Martinez, himself an immigrant, clashed with GOP leaders and the party base when he passionately championed legislation to give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. The bill died dramatically on the Senate floor in 2007.
Trying to avoid a similar fate, Rubio nurtures his relationships with party stalwarts, including his receptive audience on Tuesday. Keellin Bloom, who emigrated to the United States from Venezuela, spoke with him in Spanish as he shook hands and posed for pictures. Many Latinos are conservative, she told Convention Daily, and they look to Rubio to get that message across to the public. “He represents, for lack of a better word, our race,” she said. “Hispanics—many of us here have three degrees, two masters degrees, and speak five languages.… I don’t believe in people being here illegally or in not speaking English.”
Rubio is helping Bloom’s cause by selling himself as an American with an immigrant’s zeal. In his remarks, he quoted the national anthem and recounted the story of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the poem on which it is based. The American flag that flew throughout the long night’s battle during the War of 1812 was “a sign that we were still here. We’re still strong,” he said. “Are we still that country?”
This article appears in the August 29, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.