Sen. Marco Rubio, the 40-year-old rising star of the Republican Party and among top contenders to be Gov. Mitt Romneys running mate, is trying to rebrand himself from a right-wing Cuban-American politician to a center-right Hispanic one.
Thats the impression I got after interviewing him at length on immigration and U.S.-Latin American relations last week.
During the interview, Rubio who, if picked to be on the ballot in November would become the first Hispanic on a presidential ticket stayed a prudent distance from the most extreme foreign policy stands of his hard-line Republican colleagues in Congress.
On immigration, Rubio, opposes President Barack Obamas proposed Dream Act that would give a path to citizenship to more than 1 million college-bound students who were brought to this country as children by no fault of their own. But in the interview, he stressed his new proposal to draft a bill that would give these youths legal residency, but no citizenship. He said a little bit more compassion is needed for these undocumented youths.
Asked whether Romney hasnt alienated Latinos by wholeheartedly embracing Arizonas anti-immigration law and calling for the self-deportation of undocumented residents a euphemism for what many see as making their lives impossible in order to force their departure Rubio made various verbal pirouettes to avoid criticizing his partys presumptive nominee.
He said that Romneys statements on immigration during the primaries reflect the legitimate frustration with a runaway immigration problem, and added that the media have not placed enough attention on Romneys robust support for legal immigration.
When pressed on the Republicans anti-immigrant stands, Rubio admitted that there are minority voices within the Republican party that have used a very negative rhetoric. He added that his alternative Dream Act proposal is a great opportunity for the Republican Party to start taking a positive agenda on the immigration issue.
Rubio is expected to present his alternative Dream Act around June, at about the time when he comes out with an autobiographical book, and before Romney is expected to make his decision on a running mate.
Right now, Romney has a big problem with Latino voters, which has helped fuel speculation about Rubios vice-presidential nomination. Obama leads Romney by a whopping 67 percent to 27 percent among Latino voters in the most recent Pew Research Poll.
Asked whether he agrees with a recent proposal by his conservative Republican colleagues in the House calling for adoption of counter-insurgency tactics to combat an alleged terrorist insurgency in Mexico, Rubio told me that he is not familiar with that bill, but that he would not brand Mexicos drug cartels as terrorists because they do not have an ideological agenda.
On a similar bill by House conservative Republicans to cut by 20 percent the U.S. funding to the 34-country Organization of American States if that group keeps failing to condemn anti-constitutional measures by Venezuela and Nicaragua, Rubio said he was not ready to ask for a reduction of U.S. funds yet, but I do have many concerns about the OAS.
Asked about his House conservative colleagues call to have the State Department include Venezuela among its list of terrorist nations, Rubio told me: I am not prepared to say that now.
He explained that Venezuela will hold elections in October, and Washington should await their outcome before taking drastic measures. If Venezuelas anti-democratic trends and ties to Iran continue, I think its something we will have to give serious consideration to, he said.
My opinion: Rubio is a smart, charming and smooth politician who has embraced horrendous positions on immigration and other issues in the past. Now, he is trying to become a Hispanic politician with national appeal who can help Romney solve his problem with Latino voters, and is shifting somewhat to the center.
Thats great. But before I conclude that I like the new Rubio much better, I would like to see whether in addition to using a more compassionate rhetoric on immigration he can sway a significant number of Republicans into voting for a meaningful Dream Act bill.
If he can break the current congressional deadlock on immigration, Rubio will be much more than a charmer. He will become a game changer, and a Washington superstar with real substance. We will know that very soon.