WASHINGTON — Over the first six months of 2013, freshman Senator Marco Rubio shot to national prominence as he took the lead on one of the nation’s most divisive issues, with all the political promise and peril that goes with such a move.
He joined a bipartisan group of senators pushing a law to crack down on illegal immigration while blazing a path for some of the 11 million illegal immigrants already here to achieve legal status.
In that cause, Rubio relentlessly pursued the spotlight. He granted at least 50 interviews on television and radio, many with conservative hosts who adamantly disagreed with his plan and considered him a traitor for working with Democrats. On one Sunday alone, he appeared on seven television shows.
“In my heart and in my mind, I know we must solve this problem once and for all,” he said, just before the Senate bill passed. “Or it will only get worse and it will only get harder to solve.”
But then, almost as soon as he and his allies finished pushing the bill through the Senate, Rubio walked away from the issue in what, even for Washington, represented a stunning about-face.
Hopes for an immigration overhaul soon fizzled in the House, where the conservative critics vowed to block any bill offering what they consider “amnesty.’’
Now, as Rubio runs for president in the Republican primary, he has almost completely purged his signature issue of two years ago from his political vocabulary.
During 2013, he mentioned “immigration” or “immigrant” 135 times on the Senate floor. But over the last two years, he’s only uttered those words two times, according to a Globe review of the Congressional Record. Over those first six months of 2013, his office sent out nearly 150 press releases on immigration. Since then, he has issued just three press releases on the subject.
And on the campaign trail, the subject rarely comes up unprompted.
The story of Rubio’s shift not only reveals an especially bald political calculation, but also reflects broader Republican ambivalence on an issue that continues to bedevil the party. His Cuban-American heritage, his family story, and his leadership on immigration made Rubio one of the GOP’s most promising political figures to appeal to a growing and influential Hispanic demographic that is increasingly key to the national electoral success.
But now that he seeks the favor of conservative primary voters, Rubio has transformed his calling-card issue into something else — a question mark in his presidential resume.
From Miami, a rising star
Rubio was born 44 years ago in Miami, and his parents’ story is a key component of his own. His father was a bartender, his mother a maid — both immigrants from Cuba who fled political and economic hardships in 1956 and became naturalized US citizens nearly two decades later.
A politician who rose to speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Rubio was elected to the Senate with Tea Party backing. He had a bilingual background. In many ways, he was the ideal political leader to help craft an ambitious immigration plan. And Republicans desperately needed one.
Party leaders who dissected the carcass of Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid determined that Romney bungled the issue of immigration, particularly when he declared in a debate that undocumented immigrants should engage in “self-deportation.”
He won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in the general election campaign against President Obama.
It was in this climate that Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the number-two leader in the Democratic majority, approached Rubio in the Senate gym in December 2012 and implored him to join an emerging bipartisan effort to craft a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
“I went to him and said, ‘I think you should be part of this. But you have to understand that path to citizenship is part of the deal,’ ” Durbin recounted in an interview.
Many conservatives oppose the idea of granting citizenship to those in the country illegally, considering it amnesty. Democrats have resisted the conservative demand that beefed-up border security take priority, but were willing to make a trade.
According to Durbin, Rubio accepted the political risks: “He said, ‘I’m prepared to go forward.’ And he did.”
With Rubio in, the lead backers of the bill became known as the “Gang of Eight” — four Democrats and four Republicans.
Rubio, in a show of his seriousness, expanded his staff, bringing in an immigration expert to help craft legislation. He spoke before groups of white evangelical pastors, quoting Scripture as a justification for the bill, inspiring them with his life story.
The way he spoke of his status as a son of immigrants resonated then, and still does.
“He is connecting the immigrant experience with the American Dream and the larger American story. He does so personally, in a way that connects well,” said Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “When he talks about his Cuban immigrant father working as a bartender — it takes a lot of rhetorical skill to get Southern Baptists to tear up at a bartender. But he’s able to do it.”
In a dozen interviews with those involved in crafting the Senate plan — including most members of the Gang of Eight — there is universal agreement that Rubio’s intellect and charisma were crucial in both convincing skeptical Republicans and blunting the barrage of criticism.
“I’ve often said he was more important than the rest of the Republicans combined,” said Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and one of the other members of the group.
Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has worked for years on immigration reform, recalled walking out of an hourlong meeting with Rubio and his staff, early in the push for the Senate plan, feeling as though they were about to accomplish something historic.
“I couldn’t have walked away from that meeting happier,” Gutierrez said. “I said to him, ‘We’re going to get this done. We’re absolutely going to get this done.’ ”
The Senate bill would have provided a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, and would also have enhanced border security, adding 20,000 Border Patrol agents and 700 miles of fencing along the southern US border. Under the terms of the bill, the security measures would be completed before any undocumented immigrants achieved legal status.
“During that period, he was engaged in using political capital for the right purpose, from my perspective. And being bipartisan in that engagement. And being willing to argue his case in the most difficult circles,” said Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. “But maybe there’s a reality to how far their party can go.”
Rubio appeared to have moments of doubt that the bill struck the right balance. In public comments, he would express worry over whether border security measures were going far enough.
Other negotiators detected a rift within Rubio’s staff. His policy team was eagerly trying to reach compromise, while his political team seemed to try to derail it.
Rubio would sometimes seem to distance himself, but never for long.
“He always came back,” said one Democratic staffer. “It was kind of like Lassie.”
Rubio’s ambivalence was understandable given the beating he was taking on conservative talk radio.
Glenn Beck called him a “piece of garbage.” Laura Ingraham panned his plan and said Rubio would “rue the day he became the Gang of Eight’s poodle.” Senator David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, called his colleague “just amazingly naive” and “nuts.”
“The reaction was pretty harsh,” said Brent Bozell, a prominent conservative activist and founder of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog organization. “It was rather surprising. I was hearing it all over the country.”
After the legislation passed, it was touted as a historic vote. The Gang of Eight had accomplished something few thought they would and, in a valedictory moment, walked off the Senate floor together and into one of the most ornate hallways in the Capitol, prepared to address reporters.
But one of the eight was missing. Rubio, who did vote for the bill, didn’t show.
“It’s hard to explain. He clearly had a change of heart on the issue,” Durbin said. “It’s an extremely controversial position for him. And as he started entertaining the thought of running [for president], I think his visibility on immigration reform diminished. And his interest in our compromise changed.”
Rubio declined requests for an interview. His spokesman declined to comment for this story.
A month after it passed, when advocates were hoping to keep pressure on the House to consider the Senate compromise bill, Rubio told Fox News the legislation he helped author wasn’t perfect and he downplayed its importance.
“Look, it’s not the most important issue facing America,” he said. For example, he said, repealing Obama’s health care plan was a higher priority.
In October 2013, he sometimes spoke as as though he and other Republicans had never been part of the bipartisan push that won Senate passage of the bill.
“The House [isn’t] just going to take up and pass whatever the Democrats in the Senate are demanding,” he said on CNN.
Rubio has also directly contradicted some of his previous statements. In June 2013, responding to constituent concerns, Rubio said one of the reasons immigration is so challenging is that all of the issues — border security and pathway to citizenship — have to be handled together.
“It is all interwoven. It’s all related to each other. It’s literally impossible to do one part without doing the other,” he said.
Four months later, he stated virtually the opposite.
“When you try to do something big in Washington, it ends up running into headwinds,” he said on CNN. “Now that’s the direction the Senate went … but I continue to believe that a series of sequential, individual bills is the best way, the ideal way, to reform our immigration system.”
Immigration advocates trying to keep up the momentum for reform were deflated by Rubio’s change in tone.
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, was wowed by Rubio’s early leadership. The conviction with which he spoke about the issue could sway an entire room. Rodriguez misses that voice.
“He was Joshua leading the people into the Promised Land of immigration,” he said. “Then, right when we were on the Jordan River, he pivoted. He looked back to the desert. All of the sudden he pivoted; he took his foot out of the water.”
Now immigration is an uncomfortable conversation for Rubio, said Rodriguez, “a de facto don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“The decibel level is lower. That passion is no longer there. … When you hear him speak now you see his eyes move down a bit, his voice fluctuates a tad,” he said. “It’s not the same convicted Marco Rubio that led the charge back in 2013.
“I believe he hasn’t changed at all in terms of his convictions, but he has changed in his political calculations he believes necessary to win the Republican nomination,” Rodriguez said.
“Are we sacrificing conviction and truth at the altar of political expediency? That’s the question that has to be asked.”
A lesson learned
Earlier this year, Rubio drove to suburban Washington and appeared before the Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest annual gathering of conservative activists.
He told them he had been wrong to pursue comprehensive immigration before first securing the border.
The lesson he’s learned from it all, he said, is that comprehensive immigration reform “just really has no realistic chance of passing.”
Outside observers doubt Rubio will make immigration a major focus of his presidential campaign.
Why fall on your sword for immigration when it can’t pass in the House, where conservatives hold even greater sway than in the Senate?
“Young Mr. Rubio is figuring out the hard facts of politics in America,” said Javier Palomarez, president of the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Could he have done more? Possibly. But the criticism that he’s changed tacks simply to run for president is overly simplistic. This change in tactic is due to congressional gridlock more than political ambition.”
Palomarez believes Rubio’s shifts on the issue show political savvy. After all, the passionate conservative opposition to Rubio has dissipated as his rhetoric has shifted, giving him better standing in the GOP primary electorate.
And immigration advocates like Palomarez still view Rubio as an ally, someone who could achieve greater gains on the issue from the White House.
“I look at him and say he’s evolving on issues that are important and realizing the landscape he’s working with and the Congress we’ve got,’’ Palomarez said. “It illustrates a savvy businessman who says, ‘To get from point A to point B, I have to adapt.’”