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Marco Rubio coy about endorsing Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at a meeting of the Hispanic Leadership Network in Doral, Florida, Jan. 27, 2012.

JOE SKIPPER/Jpe Skipper/Reuters

At the rate Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have been courting Marco Rubio, the rookie Florida senator should have dibs on any job he wants in an administration run by either of the top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.

You'd think he would show some gratitude – to one of them, at least.

But Mr. Rubio, the Republicans' great Hispanic hope, has been coy about whom he's backing in Tuesday's GOP primary in Florida. He is officially staying neutral in the hotly contested race, even as Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney are both claiming kinship to him.

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Each candidate has as much as offered Mr. Rubio the vice-presidential running mate spot. Each has heaped praise on the Tea Party favourite 40-year-old who rocked Florida politics in 2010 by running then governor Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party.

Mr. Rubio won his Senate seat against Mr. Crist, who ran as an independent candidate after quitting the GOP when he stood little chance of beating Mr. Rubio in a primary.

So why is Mr. Rubio playing so hard to get?

There are a few reasons, not least of which is the fact that he owes his Senate seat to Florida Tea Partiers, who are about equally split between Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney. Backing one or the other might alienate half of his Tea Party base.

Still, Mr. Rubio did come to Mr. Romney's defence this week by blasting pro-Gingrich ads that called the former Massachusetts governor "anti-immigrant" and likened him to Mr. Crist.

"Mitt Romney is no Charlie Crist," Mr. Rubio insisted. "He's a conservative."

If some endorsements matter more than others, Mr. Rubio's, along with that of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, is rightly coveted.

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(Herman Cain's Saturday nod to Mr. Gingrich is not too shabby either, since the father of the 9-9-9 tax plan is a rock star among Tea Partiers.)

Mr. Rubio has been held up as a Republican Obama, a gifted orator with a compelling personal narrative. Contrary to the story he told during the 2010 campaign, however, his parents did not flee Fidel Castro's Cuba but arrived in Florida before the 1959 revolution.

That revelation does not seem to hurt Mr. Rubio's popularity among Cuban-Americans, who will account for a major chunk of GOP voters in Tuesday's primary.

Mr. Romney fared poorly among Cuban-Americans in his 2008 bid for the nomination. But he has worked hard to build support since then and snagged the endorsements of two prominent Cuban-American members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, as well as that of former Florida senator Mel Martinez.

What may be holding Mr. Rubio back is Mr. Romney's hard-line stand against illegal immigration. While the issue is not as salient among Cuban-Americans as other Latinos – since Cubans who make it to the United States are automatically granted residency – it has become a delicate matter for Mr. Rubio.

He has been branded a turncoat by some in the non-Cuban Hispanic community for his own tough line on illegal immigration. And though that has made him popular among Tea Partiers, it threatens to derail his goal of bringing more Latinos into the GOP fold.

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On Friday, Mr. Rubio gave his first dedicated speech on illegal immigration and the tone was dramatically different from his previous comments on the issue.

"On the right and among conservatives, we must admit there are those among us that have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable and we must admit, myself included, that sometimes we have been slow to condemn that language for what it is," he said.

Mr. Rubio chastised President Barack Obama and Democrats for encouraging "unrealistic expectation for Latinos across the country" by promising comprehensive immigration reform if he is re-elected in November. (He did in 2008, too.)

"There is not political support for the notion of granting 11 million people citizenship or a path to citizenship. It's just not there," Mr. Rubio said. "On the other side, you can't deport 11 million people."

Mr. Gingrich has promised to grant residency status, though not citizenship, to illegal immigrants who have been in the country for two decades or more. He has ridiculed Mr. Romney for suggesting that older illegal immigrants would "self-deport" if they cannot work under the strict new verification rules the ex-Massachusetts governor proposes.

"Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers," Mr. Romney shot back during Thursday's GOP debate, noting the strain on the nation's education and health-care systems.

While Mr. Romney has softened somewhat his stand as he campaigns for Latino votes in Florida, he has not moved far enough to the centre for Jeb Bush, who has championed the cause of making the Republican Party a hospitable place for Latinos.

Without them, Mr. Bush has warned, the GOP risks marginalizing itself. As the white base of the party declines as a share of the U.S. electorate, Hispanic voters – millions of them the American-born children of illegal immigrants – are replacing them.

"In the 15 states that are likely to decide who controls the White House and the Senate in 2013, Hispanic voters will represent the margin of victory," Mr. Bush wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week.

The Romney campaign heavily sought Mr. Bush's endorsement, but the ex-governor has also decided to stay neutral – a sign perhaps that Mr. Bush is none too happy with his immigration policy.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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