Rand Paul and Marco Rubio may go head-to-head in a fierce competition for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. But a funny thing is happening on the way to the White House: The would-be rivals have found themselves in a light bromance, each needing to bask in the other's glow for their own political purposes.
Rubio needs Paul's help -- and political cover on the right -- to get an immigration bill passed. Paul needs Rubio's help -- particularly with the Hispanic community -- to soften his image in the center.
Immigration reform looms large over both of their political futures, in the opportunities it provides to win over Hispanic voters and the perils it presents in crossing the party's conservative base.
When Paul decided to start building relationships in the Hispanic community, it was Rubio's office that came through with introductions. The outreach led to Paul giving two major speeches endorsing the heart of Rubio-led legislation to allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. Rubio's chief of staff, Cesar Conda, gave Paul a shout-out Wednesday by posting the latest speech to Hispanic pastors on Twitter.
Two backs scratched.
Rubio badly needs immigration reform to pass, having invested so much time and political stock in the bill's passage and lacking a major legislative achievement. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah signaled this week that their votes are out of reach, leaving Paul as Rubio's best hope for a prominent tea party wingman.
Paul's nod could boost the bill in the Senate and perhaps more importantly, give it some juice in the tea party-dominated House. "It's not just Rand's vote that Rubio needs but the people who will come along with him," said Doug Stafford, a top Paul adviser. Paul's support for immigration reform could also offer Rubio political cover in amnesty-wary, conservative corners if he runs for president.
For his part, Paul is trying to prove he can appeal to the growing minority share of the electorate in the wake of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney's disastrous showing among Hispanic and African-American voters. If an immigration bill passes without Paul on board, he could appear to be left behind instead of leading.
"Rand doesn't want to concede the general election audience and Rubio doesn't want to concede the conservative audience," said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. "It's like mime theater in which they are playing off each other. It's like shadow boxing."
The two rising stars occupy slightly different niches in the Republican Party. The young Cuban-American from Miami won election in the tea party wave of 2010 but fits in comfortably with the political establishment. Despite his continuing popularity with the Republican base, some activists are balking at his crusade for immigration reform. Paul is building on the libertarian and tea party followings of his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He has been unabashed in expressing an interest in running for president, backed up by his frequent visits to early-voting states. Paul is headed back to South Carolina in June and Iowa in July.
While polls find broad support for immigration reform, the conservatives who dominate those GOP contests tend to view a pathway to citizenship as amnesty that rewards law-breakers. Paul has suggested he would not vote for the bill without stronger border security guarantees.
"You can't help but wonder that if not for his political ambitions, Rand Paul might be a real champion of immigration reform, but instead he's hedging his bets," said Becky Tallent, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "Rubio has political reasons too, but I think he's a true believer. They are potential rivals in the future, so there are a lot of political dynamics and strong personalities. I think they are keeping their eyes on each other."
Rubio's office has praised Texas Sen. John Cornyn for proposing tightening border controls but has not commented on Paul's border amendment, which would require an annual review by Congress.
Immigration is not the first issue in which the two senators' interests overlapped. When Rubio joined Paul on the Senate floor during his 13-hour filibuster of President Obama's CIA appointment, the Florida senator got to burnish his anti-Obama, tea-party credentials, while the Kentucky senator got a chance to position himself as a leader of his fellow Republicans. "We were appreciative of Sen. Rubio's support," Stafford said.
Rubio and Paul's strategic alliance on these issues masks their stark differences on foreign policy and America's role on the world stage.
In his speech Thursday to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Paul called for the U.S. to stop aiding countries that harbor anti-American and anti-Semitic activities like Egypt and Pakistan. "I say not one penny more to countries that burn the American flag," he said.
In contrast, Rubio urged an interventionist approach when religious and civil liberties are threatened. He has joined military hawks like Sen. John McCain of Arizona in calling for arming the Syrian rebels. "If America does not step forward and say, 'this is wrong and something should be done about it, who will?' " he demanded. "I'm not advocating America get involved in every conflict on the planet or that we try to solve every civil war, but I am saying there is nothing to replace us."