With the bipartisan immigration bill taking shape in the Senate, Marco Rubio can either solidify his status as the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee, or he can punt that honor away. Rubio, young, cool, Latino, and straddling the boundary between mainstream Republican and Tea Partier, is everything the Republicans need. On top of all that, he has become the big name in comprehensive immigration reform. Having achieved that status is a major win in itself for Senator Rubio. After all, why should he get more credit for shaping the bill than Senators McCain, Durbin or Schumer, all of whom have been important to negotiations on the immigration bill. Really, if you wanted to attach any name to immigration reform, it should be Mitt Romney. Had candidate Romney not lost the Latino vote by 50 points in the 2012 election, immigration reform may never have come up in the U.S. Senate.
Now, through marketing and a willing media, Rubio is the first name mentioned (sometimes the only name) in connection to the “gang of eight” immigration bill, and the challenge for Rubio now becomes to see this bill through to passage without tarnishing his mainstream charm or hurting his Tea Party cred. It’s the second part that Rubio has to worry about. If the bill fails, Rubio will take a hit via detailed, but ultimately not nuanced coverage by CNN et al., which will boil down to “Rubio Bill Fails.” The Senate will likely pass any gang of eight bill, however, which would give Rubio some cover.
Rubio’s greater danger is that the Tea Party turns on him. Mitt Romney had to contort himself into all kinds of ugly to pacify enough of the Tea Party to ward off Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (!), and that’s something Rubio needs to avoid if he wants to be President.
So, Rubio needs to thread the needle on this one. The 2016 race has already begun, and the immigration bill is Rubio’s first primary.