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Marco Rubio Needs A 'Nixon In China' Moment

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, should meditate on the Vulcan proverb quoted by Spock in "Star Trek VI": "Only Nixon could go to China."

Spock's point was that Captain Kirk, who was the most anti-Klingon adversary in the Federation, would actually prove to be the toughest -- and most effective -- negotiator in the peace accords with the Klingons.

The phrase "Nixon goes to China" first entered the political lexicon when President Richard Nixon, who made his career as a rabid anti-communist, extended the hand of friendship to communist China. This became one of the greatest achievements of the Nixon presidency.

A similar feat could happen at the nexus of anti-immigration forces in the GOP, the undeniably powerful bloc of Hispanic voters that is up for grabs, and a leading contender for the vice presidency, Marco Rubio.

Rubio's name is on the top of virtually every political pundit's list to be nominated as the GOP's vice presidential candidate. If he were elected at age 41, he would have the most rapid rise in Republican politics since Nixon became vice president at age 39.

Rubio is a bilingual Cuban-American from Florida with an impeccable conservative voting record. The far right adores him, particularly for his firm stance against both comprehensive immigration reform that would give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and the Dream Act.

Republican strategists predict they will need 40% of the Latino vote to defeat President Obama. A Fox News poll released last week found that none of the GOP presidential candidates would get more than 14% of the Hispanic vote in November.

About a third of those polled said they would be "more likely" to vote Republican if a Latino were on the ticket. There's a joke making the rounds in Washington these days: "Who do you think will be the Republican nominee for president as Marco Rubio's running mate?"

What Republicans who support Rubio as vice president don't grasp is that support for immigration reform is a litmus test for Latino voters. When I ran the fastest-growing Hispanic-owned business in the U.S., a key part of our success was our ability to connect at a deep, authentic level with Hispanic consumers. Picking Rubio as a running mate to connect with Hispanics is like trying to connect to Jewish voters with someone who is Jewish and speaks Hebrew -- but openly hostile to Israel and friendly to Iran. The choice is absurd and reflects a deep-seated ignorance.

The GOP should look elsewhere for a leader who connects to Latinos. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, for example, who was born in Cuba to parents who weren't U.S. citizens and is therefore unable to join the GOP ticket, does, however, provide a clear model for such a person.

Fleeing Cuba for Miami when she was 7, she eventually went on to become the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. Today, she is the most senior Republican woman in the House, chairing the powerful Committee on Foreign Affairs. She is one of the strongest supporters of Israel in Congress, staunchly pro-life and a fiscal conservative, but has bucked her own party -- and Mitt Romney, whom she endorsed -- with her commitment to protecting the equal rights of gays and lesbians, and especially her commitment to comprehensive immigration reform.

Ros-Lehtinen embodies much that is lacking in Rubio (who, ironically, was an intern in her office while in law school). Take, for example, her reaction to the case of Daniela Pelaez, who came to Miami at age 4 from Colombia with her family on a tourist visa, which they overstayed. She will soon graduate from high school, No. 1 in her class of 820, with plans to be a heart surgeon. Her brother is a U.S. citizen serving in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, and her father is a U.S. resident. Daniela Pelaez's application for residency was denied.

Ros-Lehtinen intervened, asking U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement to block the girl's deportation, which the agency did, for two years. In the meantime, Ros-Lehtinen continued to urge Congress to approve the Dream Act, which she co-sponsored, working beyond the situation at hand to ensure a comprehensive way of dealing with the many children out there just like Pelaez. Rubio, for his part, met with Pelaez for a photo op in Washington, assuring the girl that he hoped a solution could be found. He maintains that the proposed legislation is a "wrong way of doing the right thing" -- yet offers not even a hint of a real, alternative solution.

Rubio is referred to as the Michael Jordan of politics. But you don't score points sitting on the bench, basking in the approbation of the hard right, oblivious to the crowd of could-be supporters in the bleachers behind you, unable to muster, even, a faint cheer for your positions on what really matters to them.

You score points by leading. And that is where Rubio seems to fail -- so far. Rubio's "China" is immigration; by shirking this issue and standing fast to supporters who will brook no compromise, he demonstrates cowardice.

Marco Rubio has a tremendous chance to journey to "China" in the face of the volatile backlash that such a journey would provoke from the far right. He has the chance to delve into an issue with no easy answers -- with the smarts, mettle and energy that he surely possesses, the same way Ros-Lehtinen approaches her own public service.

And if Rubio is going to lead the Republican ticket to victory one day, he needs to embrace the fact that the GOP has no demographic future without Latino support.

An earlier version of this post appeared on CNN.