01/27/2012 12:53 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2012

Marco Rubio Calls For A Shift In Rhetoric On Immigration

MIAMI -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) hasn't endorsed a Republican candidate or said that he wants to be vice president, but that doesn't mean that GOP hopefuls don't want him to join them on the ticket.

Rubio gave something of an audition for the post of vice president on Friday during a speech at a Hispanic Leadership Network conference here in Miami, speaking ahead of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, both of whom name-checked him in a Thursday evening debate. In that speech, he attempted to soften the tone on immigration.

And with good reason. So far in the race, many of the Republican candidates have talked about "self-deportation" and driving the 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently live here out of the country. Latino voters largely support paths to legal status for certain groups, and some consider the rhetoric around immigration divisive.

Enter Rubio, who -- though far from being liberal on immigration, or a supporter for limited-legalization bills such as the Dream Act -- is making an effort to put the GOP back in the good graces of immigration-reform supporters.

"For those of us who come from the conservative movement, we must admit that there are those among us who have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable, inexcusable," Rubio, a Cuban-American, said. "We must admit, myself included, that sometimes we've been too slow in condemning that rhetoric."

A group of three young people stood up during the speech as part of a protest by pro-immigration reform organizations.

"Then why do you not support undocumented immigrants," one protester said. "Please help us. You are an immigrant yourself."

The audience booed, one man yelling "shut up." But Rubio took a different tack, telling the audience that the protesters had the right to be at the conference and to speak up as part of the First Amendment.

"These people are very brave and they raise a very legitimate issue," he said. "And if you would allow me -- no, please --- if they would give me the courtesy of finishing my speech where I'm going to speak about this, the I ask that you guys let them stay. I think they'll be interested in what I have to say."

The audience visibly shifted, applauding for Rubio's statement and chanting, "Stay, stay." But the protesters were escorted out by staff of the event, one of the protest organizers, Felipe Matos, told The Huffington Post after the event. He said that about 60 protested outside, many of whom were citizens, but were not allowed in the resort hosting the conference.

Political strategists say that presidential candidates must receive at least 40 percent support from Latino voters, but so far polling of these voters shows a lead by Obama over any of the potential candidates. Rubio is considered a possible way to attract these voters and help bring the party support in a crucial swing state.

Rubio criticized a Gingrich campaign ad earlier this week that called Romney "anti-immigrant" -- the ad was quickly removed from the radio -- but has otherwise remained neutral.

On Friday, Rubio set a sympathetic tone on undocumented immigrants, saying the idea that all 11 million can be deported is unreasonable. He said there is no easy answer, but especially emphasized his support for legalization for some undocumented immigrants who came as children, and for worker visa reform.

"You know why people overstay visas? You know why people overstay ... what they can get, their temporary worker visas today?" he said. "Because they're afraid if they leave they're not going to be able to get back in, because it's so complicated and burdensome."

Eddie Barea, 51, a Cuban-American who lives in Florida and runs a school uniform company, said after the speech that he respected Rubio's tone on immigration reform. Barea supports the Dream Act and other legalization measures, and said the candidates' stances on immigration are important to them, although immigration is not the sole issue. Barea said he will support Gingrich in the Florida primary, although he thinks he should shift his position on immigrations, and hopes Rubio will be chosen as the vice presidential nominee.

"We don't have the right to deport them," Barea said of young people brought to the country by their parents. "I think it would be totally unfair if your parents brought you here, you have all your friends and all of your life, you might not even speak another language. ... I don't feel that that is right."