How Marco Rubio can help Mitt Romney without spot on GOP ticket

Mitt Romney trails President Obama by 40 points among Latinos, a new Pew poll shows. Maybe Marco Rubio, the charismatic US senator from Florida, can help by introducing a new version of the DREAM Act.

Jae C. Hong/AP
In this 2011 file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. speaks in Simi Valley, Calif. Political pundits often float the Cuban-American junior senator from Florida as a potential running mate for Romney, who trails far behind Obama among Latino voters.

Mitt Romney has a Latino problem, and a new Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday confirms it. The survey shows President Obama beating Mr. Romney among Latino voters by a whopping 40 points – 67 percent to 27 percent. That’s worse than the 36-point margin by which 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain lost the Latino vote.

Two days ago, Romney was overheard telling donors that recent polling of Hispanic voters “spells doom for us.” And he said the GOP needs to woo Hispanics with proposals like a “Republican DREAM Act.”

Enter Marco Rubio. The charismatic Cuban-American junior senator from Florida is often touted as a potential running mate for Romney, but even if he’s not on the ticket – and there are reasons to believe he won’t be (starting with youth and inexperience) – Senator Rubio can still help Romney, Republican strategists say.

So far, there is no Republican version of the DREAM Act, but Rubio has been working on one. The existing version, backed mostly by Democrats and unable to reach the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate, provides a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who complete two years of a four-year college or serve two years in the US military.

Rubio says he wants to help these young immigrants – caught in legal limbo through no fault of their own – but cites problems in the existing bill, including the pathway to citizenship. He says that would encourage more illegal immigration.

“So here’s what I think we should do,” Rubio told Juan Williams on Fox News recently. “We figure out a way to accommodate them and there are ways to do that.” One way, he suggests, is a “visa process that legalizes them” and, while not carving out a path to citizenship, “wouldn’t prohibit them in the future from accessing the citizenship process.”

The DREAM Act is wildly popular among Latino voters, and polls show Republican resistance to it has damaged the party’s image among Latinos. But a tough stance on illegal immigration is a core belief among the Republican base, and Romney has hewed to that position in both of his presidential campaigns.

In addition to Rubio, two other Republican senators – Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas – are working on new DREAM Act legislation, but nothing has been released.

“We’re continuing to work on it, but there’s a lot of details and we want to get it right, so I don’t have a timeframe yet,” says Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. “Kyl and Hutchison have been working on their own legislation; we’ve been in touch with their offices.”

Democrats are already dismissing the anticipated GOP version, calling it “DREAM Act Lite” or “DREAM Act without the dream.”

But Republican strategists hope that if their party can be seen as sympathetic and solution-oriented on this emotional issue, Latinos can get to the rest of their message.

“Hispanics are concerned with the economy first and foremost, but if they perceive a party and its candidates to be hostile to an issue like immigration reform, it disallows the conversation to move forward in any meaningful way,” Danny Diaz, an aide to McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told The Hill newspaper last month. “Republicans have been hurt by the tone and tenor of the conversation. There’s no disputing that.”

As the lead advocate for a GOP-sponsored DREAM Act, Rubio could help Romney overcome Hispanic resistance to his candidacy, Republicans say.

In Romney’s remarks Sunday night at a fundraiser in Palm Beach, Fla., the presumptive GOP nominee said he and other Republicans will make the case that theirs is the party of “opportunity,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Romney typically has been adamant about vetoing the existing version of the DREAM Act, but in January he showed a willingness to compromise. At a Republican debate, he said he would support legislation that provided legal status to some undocumented immigrants who join the US military.

Republicans don’t need to win a majority of the Latino vote to win the presidency, they just need to hit 40 percent – a benchmark that the second President Bush reached in both of his campaigns. Large swaths of the Latino vote, the largest minority voting bloc, are located in states that are already solidly red or blue (Texas, California, and New York). But several key battleground states have large Hispanic populations, starting with Florida and including Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and Virginia.

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