Luther Hatfield is so pleased with his U.S. senator, Florida Republican Marco Rubio, that the oysterman wants “10 more just like him” in Washington -- just not in the White House.
His pick over Rubio among prospective Republican nominees for president in 2016? Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Rubio’s role as co-author of an immigration-law rewrite has cooled Hatfield and other Republicans on the Tea Party hero. A six-city, three-day tour across the state’s Panhandle this week for Rubio revealed an anxious base of supporters he’ll have to pacify before he can seek to win over primary voters in Iowa or New Hampshire in 2016.
“It’s like he went out and committed adultery on us,” said Hatfield, 62, his short-sleeve plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans on a muggy summer day in Apalachicola. “He’s got to earn our trust again.”
Rubio, 42, who’s said he’ll decide next year whether to run for president, fell from first to fifth in a poll of nine potential Republican candidates in Iowa, the state that holds the first contest every four years, according to Public Policy Polling surveys taken in February and July. Paul was first in the latest poll.
His drop followed passage of the Senate’s immigration bill on June 27. He has seen a similar slip in New Hampshire, according to polls taken by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. On Aug. 2, his support among likely voters there dropped by half and he was fifth among 12 potential Republican candidates, after coming in second to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a February survey.
Rubio’s standing emphasizes a conundrum for his party: Many Republicans agree on the need to revamp U.S. immigration policy after their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. As a result, reaching out to minority voters was a key recommendation of a Republican National Committee report after the election.
Still, Republican lawmakers who back a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented U.S. immigrants often risk a backlash among their supporters. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has drawn two 2014 primary opponents, in part because of his backing for the Senate bill.
The split has surfaced in the Capitol, where Republicans who control the U.S. House have rejected the Senate immigration bill and instead are taking a piecemeal approach. House lawmakers are preparing separate measures on the issue.
“Some people in Iowa really believe that Rubio would be unrecoverable if he chose to mount a campaign in 2016” for president, said Bob Vander Plaats, chief executive officer of The Family Leader, an Iowa-based coalition. “He has severely damaged himself” by backing immigration, said Vander Plaats, whose group backs Republican stances opposing abortion rights and gay marriage.
Rubio, dressed in a dark suit and tie for each event in Florida this week, has a life-of-the-party quality to him as he shakes hands and laughs while moving through an audience. In Panama City, he chatted with one man about high school football. He joked with a woman that her daughter’s acceptance at Harvard University was a great accomplishment, though she should have attended the University of Florida, his alma mater.
He mostly avoided talking about immigration on his 330-mile (535 kilometer) trek through North Florida, meeting primarily with pro-business groups. He instead focused his talks on stopping implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
In a 35-minute speech to the Rotary Club of Jacksonville on Aug. 12, Rubio spent less than 90 seconds discussing immigration, noting that it was a “deeply unpopular” subject among his supporters. He didn’t mention it during a 25-minute speech on Aug. 13 to Bay County Republicans in Panama City.
“Politically, it has not been a pleasant experience in the least,” Rubio told Bay County Republicans later in response to an immigration question from the audience. “I just can’t stand to see something that’s so broken and so wrong and not try to do something to make it better.”
Rubio met privately with anti-tax Tea Party members and other grassroots activists where he explained his work on the immigration issue.
“He may not get it 100 percent right, but he’s trying,” said Billie Tucker, a Tea Party organizer in Jacksonville who attended one of the private meetings. “You could hear the emotion in people’s voices when they asked him questions. He answered them with facts and made them feel better.”
During a radio interview in Tallahassee on Aug. 13, Rubio said he pushed to revamp immigration law in part because President Barack Obama might be “tempted” to legalize undocumented workers through an executive order if Congress doesn’t act.
“We could find ourselves with all 11 million people here legally under executive order from the president, but no E- Verify, no more border security, no more border agents, none of the other reforms that we desperately need,” Rubio said on WFLA-FM.
Obama last year ordered the federal government to exempt from deportation younger undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements. White House spokeswoman Joanna Rosholm disputed Rubio’s comment and said in an e-mailed statement that the “only solution to this problem” is a bill from Congress.
Rubio’s pivot to attacking Obama’s health-care law, a measure that sparked the Tea Party’s rise during Congress’s August recess in 2009, would help make him a “well-rounded” candidate, said Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire.
“Immigration is not an enormous issue in New Hampshire,” said Rath, an adviser to Romney’s presidential campaign last year. “Obamacare -- the cost of it, the implementation of it -- has universality that really matters in an economy whose recovery is, at best, feeble.”
Americans remain skeptical about the health-care law. Freddie Wehbe, who has 200 employees at Domino’s Pizza franchises in Gainesville, was among several Florida business owners who told Rubio they’re waiting to hire workers because of uncertainty about health-insurance costs.
Three unions that typically support Democrats, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, last month wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats, urging them to fix a provision that they said gives employers an incentive to employ workers for less than 30 hours a week. The Obama administration has already delayed a crucial part the law, giving businesses an extra year to provide their workers with insurance.
Still, the issue has challenges for Rubio, who has vowed to vote against budget legislation that includes any funding for the health-care law.
“Throwing it away doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Santa Fe Health Care Chief Executive Officer Michael Gallagher said during Rubio’s meeting with Gainesville Chamber of Commerce members. “There’s a lot of good elements in there.”
Gallagher, whose Gainesville-based company sells health- coverage plans and runs a retirement community, questioned the wisdom of Rubio’s tactic in a Democratic-controlled Senate and urged him to instead fix the law’s specific issues.
Chris Nwasike, a 35-year-old wealth manager in Jacksonville and former Tea Party organizer, said Rubio’s push to defund the health-care law could lead to a government shutdown and hurt the financial markets.
At the Bay County Republican Party fundraising dinner, 72- year-old retiree Jim Bova heckled the senator as Rubio described defunding Obama’s health-care law as a moral issue for the party.
“As conservatives, what issue are we willing to draw a line in the sand on if it’s not this one?” Rubio said. “Now look, if someone’s got a better idea about how to stop Obamacare I’m open to that. But I haven’t heard one yet.”
“Why don’t you guys come up with one on your own?” Bova shouted.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Rubio told him.
“That’s not trying very hard, not in four years,” Bova shot back.
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