Heading into conservative gathering, Rubio more active on Obamacare-defunding than immigration

George Bennett

Sure, it’s early to be contemplating the 2016 presidential race.

But with Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas converging on Orlando Friday and Saturday to address a national gathering of conservative activists, it’s hard not to think about the jockeying for the next GOP presidential nomination.

The potential 2016 candidates, along with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other stars of the right, will be featured at a conference sponsored by Americans For Prosperity, the free-market, limited-government advocacy group famously supported by billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch.

Americans For Prosperity is focused on economic issues and doesn’t have a position on immigration reform. That’s good news for Rubio, who has fallen from favor with many in the conservative Republican base since he took a lead role in supporting Senate legislation that offers a pathway to citizenship for millions of people who are now in the country illegally.

“A lot of people are disappointed with Rubio’s stance with the immigration bill and promoting that. They feel it’s amnesty and a sellout,” said Palm Beach County conservative activist Everett Wilkinson, who hosted Rubio at a 2009 tea party rally in West Palm Beach when Rubio was an underdog Senate hopeful.

Before immigration took center stage in the Senate, a national survey in March by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Rubio the top 2016 presidential choice among Republicans with 21 percent support. A few weeks after the Senate’s June 27 passage of the immigration bill, another national PPP poll found Rubio was the top choice of 10 percent of Republicans; he had slipped behind Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Cruz.

Rubio’s support has also dropped among Republicans in the early presidential battleground of New Hampshire. And in the early arena of Iowa, influential conservative radio host Steve Deace cited immigration in a June column for Politico that advised: “Marco Rubio shouldn’t even bother showing up in 2016.”

“There’s no denying he’s dropped in the polls and some of his shine has worn off,” said Gainesville-based Republican pollster Alex Patton. But Patton said Rubio has plenty of time to overcome any problems within the GOP.

Since the Senate passed its immigration bill, Rubio has defended the legislation in interviews but hasn’t gone out of his way to bring it up as the GOP-led House begins consideration. When Rubio discussed immigration in an Aug. 13 interview with conservative radio host Preston Scott of Tallahassee station WFLA, he played on conservative fears of Obama using his executive powers if Congress fails to pass a reform bill.

“I believe that this president will be tempted, if nothing happens in Congress, he will be tempted to issue an executive order like he did for the Dream Act kids a year ago where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen,” Rubio said.

Since the Senate passed its immigration bill, Rubio has grabbed a high-profile role in calling for Congress to strip funding from the federal health care law.

Of the 53 press releases issued by Rubio’s Senate office over the last two months, 32 have dealt with killing the health care law. Running a distant second, with four releases from the Rubio press shop, was the problem of decreased water flows into Apalachicola Bay.

Rubio and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson held a field hearing on Apalachicola Bay on Aug. 13 during a week in which Rubio made speeches in Jacksonville, Gainesville and Pensacola on stripping money from Obamacare.

Rubio hasn’t made public appearances in Florida since Aug. 14. He’s spent the August congressional recess vacationing with his family at Ocean Reef in the Keys, coaching his sons’ youth football team and visiting California and Boston to raise money for his Reclaim America PAC.

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant disputes the suggestion that Rubio is downplaying immigration and emphasizing the health care law to repair frayed relations with conservatives.

“He always said that after the Senate passed its legislation, the House should be given the time and space to improve what the Senate did and develop their own legislation,” Conant said. On health care, Conant said, “This fall’s fiscal fights are the last, best opportunity to stop Obamacare before it goes into effect, which is why we and other senators are working to build grassroots support for defunding Obamacare in the next government funding bill.”

Tea party activist Wilkinson, while critical of Rubio’s immigration stance, said the issue won’t necessarily define him with conservatives.

“We’re not thrilled with his immigration stance, but on other issues he’s been solid,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve got some big votes coming up with the budget, national debt and Obamacare. Rubio does have a chance to shine.”