Even if Romney supports Rubio's legislation, that by itself is unlikely to undo all of the damage the former Massachusetts governor suffered with Hispanic voters during the GOP primaries, when he used immigration as a club to undermine his rivals' conservative credentials. In that effort, he pledged to veto the Democratic-version of the Dream Act; praised the tough Arizona immigration-enforcement law (and said he would have dropped the federal lawsuit against it that the Supreme Court heard this week); and denounced any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Instead, he said, he would pressure the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to "self-deport" by stiffening enforcement of laws against hiring and aiding them.
The effect of all those proposals is evident in recent polls showing Obama, when matched against Romney, equaling (or exceeding) the two-thirds of the Hispanic vote that he won in 2008. In several of those surveys (such as last week's University of Phoenix/National Journal Next America Poll), Obama's share of the vote among Latinos notably exceeds his approval rating with them. That's a telling measure of how much Romney has alienated those voters, because it's unusual for a president to poll much above his approval rating with any group. Obama's current standing also represents a recovery from the Democrats' decline with Hispanics in the 2010 election. While Latinos are disappointed about the economy and disenchanted with Obama for not stressing immigration reform, "Republicans have to adopt a tone that clearly views Hispanics as a part of a center-right coalition and be very aggressive in their efforts to reach out," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who advises the right-leaning Hispanic Leadership Network.
Rubio isn't formulating his bill to benefit Romney. But for Romney to embrace it would send "a very important signal to Hispanic voters," Ayres argues. It could also align Romney with groups holding substantial credibility in that community. Publicly, immigrant-rights groups generally argue that Rubio's concept doesn't go far enough because it lacks a guaranteed pathway to citizenship for the young people involved. But private conversations already under way suggest that Rubio's concept could divide Democrats and attract significant support among immigration advocates, at least as a starting point for discussion and perhaps even as the endpoint of an agreement. "If the concept as he has laid it out is translated into decent legislation and he brings Republican support to the table, it's a game changer," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America's Voice.
Rubio's ability to deliver on the second half of Sharry's equation — attracting other Republicans — remains uncertain. The senator's supporters take heart from the dogs that aren't barking yet on the right. "Given how much coverage this potential bill has received "¦ so far, at least, there have been very, very few conservative voices who have sprung up to criticize it," one Rubio adviser said. The one exception is Kris Kobach, the hard-line Kansas secretary of state, who Romney earlier welcomed as an adviser but has lately tried to distance himself from.