Rubio Treads Lightly in Immigration Battle

Rubio hopes to earn street cred on both sides of the aisle with immigration talks.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says he wants to help reform the U.S. immigration process.
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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., may not have to worry about signing onto a bipartisan immigration plan that could harm his 2016 presidential primary star the way it did for Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012. Perry was flying high in the 2012 Republican primary before he claimed during a debate, "I don't think you have a heart" if you don't believe in educating the children of illegal immigrants. Later, eventual nominee Mitt Romney helped solidify support among conservative voters in Iowa, the first GOP primary contest, by pressing for an immigration policy that involved making life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they "self-deport" back to their own countries.

But Steffen Schmidt, political science professor at Iowa State University and CNN en Espanol commentator, says the calculus has changed. While Rubio has a tight-rope to walk on the issue, both time and the 2012 election results have altered the dialogue.

"'Self-deportation' has disappeared from the vocabulary because that didn't work out well for Mitt Romney," Schmidt says. "I think Rubio is trying to walk that fine line between saying 'Yes, we are trying to accomplish that but no, it's not amnesty.'"

[CHARTS: What Immigrants Mean to U.S. Economy]

Republicans have focused in on a poor 2012 performance among Hispanic voters, the country's fastest growing voting demographic, as a key area for improvement in future elections. Many hope by achieving bipartisan immigration reform, the party can rebrand themselves to the community in a more positive light.

Rubio, whose parents came to the United States from Cuba, has been a key player on this front thanks to his Latino roots and conservative appeal. But following a weekend announcement that labor and business negotiators had come to an agreement on part of the immigration reform proposals, Rubio – who has been working in a bipartisan Senate group to craft a comprehensive measure – issued a statement cautioning that he was not wed to any imminent announcement.

Schmidt says in his state, where lawmakers like Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, are still vehemently against proposals that include a path to citizenship, Rubio is right to be wary.

[ENJOY: Political Cartoons About Illegal Immigration]

"It depends on how they camouflage it – if they put enough leaves and twigs and branches and camo net over it, they may be able to say, 'this is tough on illegal immigrants, it focuses first on border security,'" Schmidt says of how to sell a bipartisan deal while still holding the affections of conservative voters.

David Woodard, a South Carolina Republican political consultant and visiting professor at Southern Methodist University, says Rubio is likely on firm ground in the Palmetto State, given how Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who is up for re-election in 2014, has also joined the immigration talks.

"[Graham] certainly feels comfortable doing what he is doing working with this 'gang of eight.' I think he thinks it's not going to endanger his re-election, so that ought to tell you something," Woodard says. He adds that Graham has received some internal polling numbers that shows conservatives are warming up to immigration compromise – unlike a couple of years ago when Graham was considered a pariah to the GOP for being willing to discuss the issue.

[READ: Anti-Amnesty Groups Prepare for Battle]

"It's a slam-dunk issue [for Rubio]," says Woodard. "Obviously his getting out in front on it, him being who he is, is going to help him for 2016 if he decides to run. As long as it's done with candor and compassion, those are the two most important words. If it's amnesty, then you need to go ahead and say it's amnesty."

And that's where Rubio's high-wire act remains up in the air; whether or not it ends in legislation that offers something akin to amnesty remains in question. His recent moves indicate he's still conscientious of having to make a sale to conservatives who are uncomfortable with the idea of rewarding illegal behavior. Already, one political action group, NumbersUSA, has promised to "make their voices heard" when it comes to opposing immigration reform that includes amnesty.