06/19/2013 02:39 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2013

Marco Rubio's Immigration Push Cools GOP Grassroots Fervor, But 2016 Outlook Stays Steady

WASHINGTON -- Anyone paying attention to political trends in the nation's capital would be forgiven for thinking that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is taking on water.

They have reason to think so. The hits from the right on the Senate immigration reform bill and on Rubio, its champion, have increased over the past few weeks. National Review is getting into a habit of lambasting the Florida senator, Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol has told Rubio to "walk away" from the bill, and key tea party lawmakers like Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have made clear they're not on board.

Rubio's name was even booed at a rally against the immigration bill on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

You can hear the tumult finding a chorus: Rubio is losing the grassroots, who loved him after his upstart 2010 win over Charlie Crist. His quest to become the Republican Barack Obama -- a transformative political leader for his party -- is in peril.

That, however, is overstating the case. While it's clear that the adulation Rubio enjoyed when he arrived in Washington as one of the tea party senators has dissipated, there are a few reasons his political fortunes have not shifted dramatically -- yet. Rubio remains one of the GOP's most talented political figures, his poll numbers have stayed healthy, and there is a long time between now and 2016.

The real danger to Rubio is not measured by the loudest or most extreme voices, such as talk radio host Glenn Beck's declaration that the senator is "a dirtbag." Rather, it is the increase in conservative figures who criticize Rubio reluctantly, like Kristol and RedState founder Erick Erickson.

Rubio is still, despite taking some lumps, the right's "golden boy," as conservative writer Ben Domenech put it in an email. He is the most charismatic, eloquent, telegenic, non-white Republican officeholder in the land. The conventional wisdom has been that he is the GOP's best shot for president in 2016. That has heavily influenced the way conservatives who raged against the 2007 immigration bill have engaged with the current debate.

"Even those who disagree with him, and there are certainly people who do -- he knows that and we know that -- their disagreement will not be disagreeable. They understand that he is an extraordinarily valuable asset to conservatism and to the pro-family movement," said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

However, it is now five months into the immigration effort, and things are shifting. The Senate is debating amendments, and the House is soon to take up the bill. Rubio's charm offensive with the talk radio right has past its expiration date, and Rush Limbaugh is voicing more frequent dissent, even if he is still not lighting up the issue. For those like Beck who may have held back before, the gloves are off.

"I didn't want to say anything because I'm like, I'm hoping it was just me being paranoid," Beck said last week about his reticence to blast Rubio this past winter and spring. But then he added, "I'm telling you, Rubio is not on our side. He is not on our side ... Don't trust Marco Rubio. Not for a second."

Beck went on to knock, in hyperbolic terms even for him, Rubio's June 9 comment in Spanish on Univision, in which he put "legalization" of undocumented immigrants ahead of border security. Rubio later said he "should have been more artful" and clarified he was not talking about granting immigrants a green card or citizenship, but rather an interim probationary status.

"That's the same tactic Hezbollah uses," Beck said. "That's the same tactic the Muslim Brotherhood uses. They say one thing in Arabic and then they say another thing in English, and then they're like, 'Oh, it was a translation thing.'"

Those sentiments might have had some impact in 2007, when the immigration debate was far more toxic, but in 2012 they don't concern Rubio's staff, according to private conversations with advisers to the senator. In contrast, the argument by RedState's Erickson should give them some pause.

"We all like and respect the Senator, even if we disagree on this issue," Erickson wrote a few days ago. He then declared that either Rubio is "being played the fool or we are being played the fool by Senator Rubio."

"I am just shocked, knowing what we now know, that Senator Rubio would continue to support this legislation," Erickson wrote.

In addition, the emergence of Cruz, elected to the Senate in November, as a national political force has threatened Rubio's position as the conservative Hispanic standard-bearer.

"When Cruz took off, he became the Texas version of Rubio: an articulate, conservative Hispanic firebrand. It wasn't anything against Rubio," said New Hampshire-based consultant Dave Carney, who has worked in Texas politics for years. "But the last few weeks the immigration debate has not helped Rubio's reputation. Cruz has taken a lot of energy."

But for every talk radio host such as Limbaugh or Mark Levin who is against the immigration bill, there are others for it, such as Sean Hannity and Michael Medved. And though a group of tea party and other conservative leaders signed a letter urging that the bill be scrapped, another group of leaders has signed a letter praising the legislation.

Interviews with a cross section of conservative and Republican activists and operatives outside Washington reinforced the idea that while dissatisfaction with Rubio is growing, it is not a ring-the-bells emergency by any stretch of the imagination.

"Think of activists as a patchwork quilt of issues. He's down with a few squares, but the impact on everyone else is muted," said Charlie Arlinghaus, who runs the conservative Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in New Hampshire. "Immigration will probably always be a big issue with the conservative base, but there are many fewer concerned [than in 2007] and those that are tend to be less intense. More important, there are more trusted conservatives voicing support for reform than before. In the past, most reform supporters had dubious conservative credentials."

Rubio's poll numbers have yet to show downward movement. His approval rating among Republicans nationally is 58 percent, according to an early June Gallup poll, with only 11 percent disapproval.

In Florida, a new Quinnipiac survey, out Wednesday, showed his approval rating has ticked up since March from 41 percent to 44 percent, equaling his highest statewide mark, while his disapproval rating sits at 33 percent. Florida Republicans view Rubio favorably by a measure of 81 percent to 5 percent. That's despite the fact that 41 percent of Floridians in the poll disapprove of how Rubio is handling immigration, compared to 33 percent who approve.

Since such large numbers of Republicans start with favorable views of Rubio, expressions of disappointment in the senator are still more common than outright opposition.

Iowa Republican activist Ryan Rhodes exhibited that more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone in an email. "Originally it seemed many wanted to give him a chance on immigration, but when he goes on Rush and says, 'First comes border security,' then to a Spanish network and says, 'It's amnesty first,' that trust becomes lost," said Rhodes.

So far, Rubio's frontrunner position in the 2016 sweepstakes appears to be holding. It was a popular yet anonymous conservative blogger who offered the sharpest take on what impact the latest criticism might have.

"As much as I hate what Rubio's doing with the immigration reform, I'm paradoxically reassured by the fact that he seems to realize it won't much hurt him in 2016," wrote Allahpundit, one of the main contributors to HotAir.com. "Ideologues like me will hold it against him, but if your goal is getting elected president, who cares what ideologues think? We couldn't stop either Romney or John McCain(!) from being nominated in the last two cycles and we'll be the first ones at the polls on election day 2016 to pull the lever for the nominee, even if it's Marco 'Legalization First' Rubio. He doesn't need to impress us, he needs to impress the non-ideological middle class."

Allahpundit's point is correct: It is a long way to 2016 yet.

"He's got three years to bring it back. And if he's successful and we see success in it, it could be a huge thing," said LaDonna Riggs, a Republican activist from South Carolina.

After hearing Rubio speak at a Faith and Freedom conference last week about the importance of preserving America's respect for freedom of speech and freedom of religion, Riggs, for one, remained skeptical of the senator's push for a bill but was not reflexively dismissive.

"I certainly understand it. Being of immigrant descent, I know it has to be addressed," she said. "But he's going to have a hard time with it."

That, however, was always in the cards.



Sen. Marco Rubio