Sen. Marco Rubio defended his proposal for comprehensive
immigration reform before a friendly crowd of Pasco County Republicans on
Tuesday, but he acknowledged, "There will be no parade for me on this issue."
"I ran because I wanted to fix things that I thought were hurting America -- that's what I tried to do on this issue," he said. "To people who don't like that solution, all I ask is, 'What's yours?"
Rubio's backing of the proposal by the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" has angered some of his strongest backers, the tea party-style conservative wing of the party, who call the bill "amnesty."
But speaking to a group of Republicans in a county that helped start the ball rolling in his 2010 Senate race, Rubio got a standing ovation after defending the proposal.
Right now, he said, with 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, "We don't know who most of them are," or where they live or work.
He said to obtain legal status, they would be have to undergo fingerprinting and a background check, pay a $2,000 fine and application fee, work, pay taxes and obey the law for 10 years or more.
"Then and only then will they be allowed to apply for a green card," he said.
Rubio's appearance Tuesday, to be followed by stops at GOP events today in Lakeland and Port St. Lucie, comes at a critical moment in his political career.
Signs continue to mount that he's a potential frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination for president. A poll released Tuesday by Fairleigh Dickinson University was the latest to show Rubio with a slight edge among a crowd of potential candidates, but with many GOP voters undecided.
The results: Rubio, 18 percent; former Gov. Jeb Bush 16 percent; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 14 percent; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum 9 percent, and 42 percent undecided or for another candidate.
But at the same time, Rubio is under a sustained attack over immigration.
Many tea party activists contend the bill would allow millions of new immigrants into the country; that some would get legal status much sooner than the 10 years Rubio says it would require; and that provisions for securing the border before legal status is granted aren't iron-clad.
In response, Rubio has defended the bill in a flurry of interviews on conservative television and radio talk shows and put up a "myth vs. fact" section on his Senate office web site to rebut the accusations.
But he also has shown signs of giving in to the conservative pressure.
In an interview broadcast Tuesday with conservative talk show host Mike Gallagher, he offered conciliation.
"To those who have problems with some component of the bill ... maybe you have a very valid point," he said. In fact I've heard some valid objections. Let's try to fix it. I think this is a starting point that obviously we can and should improve."
The bill, backed by President Obama, is headed for votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week. House GOP leaders have said they intend to consider it in pieces.
County GOP Chairman Randy Maggard said he's heard some expressions of dissatisfaction with Rubio from Pasco Republicans over immigration, but for the most part, "They're still very high for him. A lot say they're going to watch it play out before they come to a decision."
Pasco Republicans are mostly happy with another controversial stand by Rubio, on gun control. Rubio was among a handful of senators who promised to filibuster the recent legislation requiring background checks for most gun sales.
A group of protesters from the Pasco Democratic Party, women's groups and peace groups held signs across the street from the banquet hall where Rubio spoke, focusing on Rubio's votes on gun control and against the Violence Against Women Act.
Rubio and other Republican office holders "are failing to protect Pasco residents from gun violence" and "vote against what 90 percent of Americans, including Republicans, want: background checks," said Pasco Democratic Party Chairman Lynn W. Lindeman.
But inside, door prizes at the GOP event included a Henry rifle and a Taurus semi-automatic .38 caliber pistol.
"Next year we're going to have more guns to keep the protesters happy," Hudson gun shop owner Mike Jones, officiating at the giveaway, told the crowd.
Maggard said the dinner, the party's main annual fundraising event, attracted 562 attendees at $125 or more per person.
Before his Tuesday night speech, Rubio visited Florida College Academy, a Christian K-8 school across the Hillsborough River from Christian Florida College in Temple Terrace, to promote school choice.
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