Marco Rubio's Immigration Evolution Is Stirring GOP Anxiety

Republican strategists want him to take a firm position.

WASHINGTON -- The ongoing scuffle between Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over immigration has evinced a fair amount of panic within establishment Republican circles.

While some worry that the conflict will lead to a damaging moment for Rubio, similar to when Mitt Romney infamously called for a policy of self-deportation, others are fretting that the damage was already done when he abandoned comprehensive reform altogether.

"I think it will be a fatal blow in the long run," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a fellow presidential candidate, said when asked about Rubio moving away from the so-called gang of eight bill that he helped construct. "I think that and abortion will be two of the problems -- no exceptions for rape or incest."

Few others are willing to speak so fatally about Rubio's chances. But Graham's prognostications do underscore the strategic fissure currently erupting within Republican circles. Sparked by the sustained popularity of Donald Trump and his build-the-dang-fence campaign, the pressures on other candidates to sharpen their immigration policy are growing more severe.

And with Cruz now accusing Rubio of supporting amnesty -- fed by Cruz's sense that the two of them will be the last candidates standing -- establishment figures anxiously await to see how far Rubio will go in trying to outflank or out-maneuver his generally-more conservative counterpart.

"He has to decide if wants to win the general," said John Feehery, a longtime GOP operative and lobbyist at the firm QPA Public Affairs. "I think that campaigns reveal whether you are a true leader or not and by and large parties nominate true leaders. He has got to take a stand. He can’t have it both ways."

Feehery's main gripe with Rubio is one often expressed by Republican immigration reform advocates. The senator has, to a very deliberate extent, kept his position on immigration reform broad and vague.

He has a very specific immigration policy to his name: the gang of eight bill, which would have provided a path for legalization and then citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, dramatically expanded border security efforts and changed the legal immigration system.

Since that bill languished in the House, though, Rubio has retreated to something less ambitious. He now says border security must come first, and talks about legal status for undocumented immigrants rather than a path to citizenship. 

Rhetorically, Feehery argues, Rubio has shifted too, avoiding opportunities to call out Trump's nativism when they've presented themselves.  

"Both Jeb [Bush] and [John] Kasich stood up and said we are not going to deport 11 million illegal aliens," Feehery said. "It doesn’t make sense. And Rubio should have gone in with those guys but he didn’t. He just kind of kept his mouth shut. Some might say it was lucky. I thought it was telling."

Bush said during Tuesday's GOP debate that staffers for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton must be "doing high-fives" as they listened to the exchange -- which is probably true, since her campaign tweeted in Spanish soon after disparaging the GOP candidates over immigration.

Her campaign is likely hoping for more ammunition from the current Cruz-Rubio conflict.

There are some though who think that the spat between the two could be a good thing for the Florida senator and potentially even for the party. For months, discussion within the Republican primary has been dominated by Trump's calls for mass deportation and an end to birthright citizenship for children born to undocumented immigrants. Other candidates either followed his lead or stumbled over how to respond to it.

This week, though, Rubio had the option of responding to Cruz's attacks by insisting on his own hardline stance on deportation. Instead, he took the opposite tack: saying Cruz isn't as much of a hardliner as he says he is.  

"On the immigration front, as I said, I'm puzzled and quite frankly surprised by Ted's attacks, since Ted's position on immigration is not much different than mine," Rubio said in a statement on Friday. "He is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally. If he's changed that position, then he certainly has a right to change his position on that issue, but he should be clear about that."

The campaign blasted out multiple emails pointing out that Cruz said in 2013 that he was open to legal status for undocumented immigrants, based in part on an amendment he attempted to add to the gang of eight bill, and that he supported increasing the number of H1-B worker visas.

Cruz told radio host Mike Gallagher on Friday that he "laughed out loud" about Rubio's claim the two shared similar stances on immigration, and his campaign has said the amendment was not an endorsement of legal status.

Also on Friday, he laid out an immigration plan that solidifies his status as an immigration hawk: more deportations, a border wall, ending birthright citizenship, halting increases in legal immigration and temporarily suspending H1-B visas entirely to investigate them.

The way Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of American Principles Project's Latino Partnership, sees it, the argument is turning out well for Rubio and badly for Cruz. Aguilar has not endorsed a candidate, but supports immigration reform and has long urged GOP candidates to moderate their stances.

"It shows that Cruz is the bad guy and Rubio is actually a good guy, to be over-simplistic," Aguilar said.

If this debate makes Cruz and Rubio give more detailed positions, that's a good thing, said Jorge Lima, vice president of operations and policy at the Libre Initiative, a Koch brothers-backed group focused on Latino voters.

"At the end of the day, if candidates or any policy-makers are having an honest discussion where they're actually talking about what reform should look like, I think that honesty will pay off," Lima said.

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