Inside Marco Rubio’s stumble on immigration and what it says about his ability to lead

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Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio. (Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP)

WASHINGTON, D.C., and MIAMI — On the afternoon of July 30, 2013, Marco Rubio walked onto the floor of the Senate to give another stem-winder — the latest in a season of feisty speeches.

“Is there an issue on which we are willing to do everything we can and lay it all on the line?” Rubio asked his fellow senators. “If it is not this one, which one is it?”

For months, the freshman from Florida had been one of the central figures in American politics. The previous November, Republican Mitt Romney had received only 27 percent of Latino support on his way to losing the election, and that same night the GOP pinned its hopes on Rubio, a 41-year-old Cuban-American who had served in Washington for less than two years.

Rubio accepted the challenge, and in early 2013 he took up the cause of immigration reform. In reality, he had little choice: It was the issue of the day and everybody was taking sides. Still, Rubio did more than just weigh in: He adopted a leadership role, and a position at odds with many in the base of his party, and by the end of June he had helped push a comprehensive reform bill through the Senate. Immigration reform became Rubio’s signature issue; month after month he championed it, wooing both conservative talk radio and Spanish-language media and exhausting himself in the process.

After only two years in the Senate, Rubio had become a central figure in American politics. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As Rubio entered the Senate chamber, the deal was halfway home. The bill had shifted to the deeply conservative House, where the debate continued to rage.

But Rubio was not on the Senate floor to argue for immigration reform. Not today. In fact, now that tea party conservatives who had propelled him to office in 2010 had turned on him — radio personality Glenn Beck went so far as to call Rubio “a piece of garbage” — the senator had stopped talking about immigration almost completely. Instead, he had come to play second fiddle to another senator even newer to the chamber than he.

Rubio had come to support Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s quixotic quest to defund Obamacare.

After immigration reform passed the Senate, Rubio could have continued his crusade and worked to ensure that the House passed something as well. Instead, he decided to change the subject. In July, he sponsored legislation to outlaw abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy; a few weeks later, he withdrew support for a gay judge whom he had previously supported.

Now, while Rubio criticized Obama from the lectern, Cruz — the tea party’s latest darling — sat a couple of feet to his right, nodding and grinning. At one point, Rubio likened the Affordable Care Act to New Coke — a product that Coca-Cola was forced to recall in 1985 after only a few short months on the shelves.

“It was a disaster,” Rubio said. “Everybody hated it. What did Coca-Cola do when New Coke began to flounder? They did not say, ‘Well, we are just going to continue to make more of it.’ They backed away from it.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, center, with Rubio, left, and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, after a GOP attempt to defund Obamacare was voted down in the Senate. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rubio wasn’t referencing his decision to back away from immigration reform — but he might as well have been.

“[Coca-Cola] learned from their mistake, and they did not double down,” he continued. “That is the way it is in the real world. That is the way it is in our lives.”

*****

Rubio had a point that day. Everybody backtracks. Repositioning is a fact of life, especially in politics.

But what Rubio did in 2013 seemed different. The problem wasn’t that he shifted his focus or emphasis. The problem was that he ditched his own immigration-reform bill while it was winding its way through Congress — and started desperately trying to convince conservatives that he was still one of them instead.

In short, Rubio appeared to panic. “He just decided to run from it like a scalded dog,” says one influential Republican consultant.

“It was not his finest hour,” adds Alex Castellanos, a Cuban-born Republican consultant who is not supporting any one candidate in 2016.

The episode raised important questions about Rubio’s leadership skills — questions that still linger nearly two years later, as the senator embarks on his first campaign for the Oval Office.

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The presidency is a singular job; no prior experience can really prepare someone to lead the free world. But how a candidate operates under pressure has long been a key indicator of how he or she will respond to crisis as president.

When Wall Street collapsed in September 2008, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., were essentially tied in the polls. But then McCain announced that he wanted to “suspend” his campaign and delay the coming debate. He appeared to be flummoxed and indecisive. “It’s going to be part of the president’s job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once,” Obama said at the time — and voters eventually agreed.

On Aug. 5, 1981, Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 striking air-traffic controllers, setting the tone for the rest of his presidency and strengthening his hand in later talks with Mikhail Gorbachev, who was reportedly impressed. In 1960, John F. Kennedy helped get Martin Luther King Jr. released from jail; Richard Nixon refused to get involved. As the Democratic Party seemed to disintegrate in 1948, Harry Truman took risk after risk, supporting civil rights and railing against Congress on a 21,928-mile whistle-stop tour; his rival, Thomas Dewey, spoke in platitudes and rarely mentioned Truman’s name. The list goes on.

Immigration reform is as close as Rubio has come, so far, to a similar crisis.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, right, and Sen. John McCain spoke with Rubio this spring about his future. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

No one doubts Rubio’s raw talent: his speaking ability, his intellect, his sense of humor, his telegenic and charismatic personality. But there are doubts about his readiness for the presidency.

Earlier this spring, McCain and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had a conversation with Rubio about his future.

A McCain aide said the conversation was about “keeping open the possibility of running for reelection while he runs for president.” Rubio, 43, has plenty of time to seek the presidency; by giving up his seat he will trigger an expensive battle that the GOP might very well lose.

But two sources, one who claimed to have firsthand knowledge of McCain and McConnell’s intentions, said the meeting was to discourage a presidential run.

Aides to McCain and McConnell both vehemently denied that was the case. “After having lots of people tell him not to run for president over the years, Sen. McCain would be the last person to tell somebody else not to run,” the McCain aide said.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said that “while [McConnell] has conversations with Sen. Rubio all the time, he did not tell him not to run for president.”

Because Rubio is such a political phenom, many political insiders who spoke with Yahoo News wondered how he got himself into such an uncomfortable position over immigration. The answer, according to multiple sources, is that there was a divide between Rubio’s advisers over whether he should wade into the comprehensive-reform debate, with his political team counseling against it and at least three of his policy advisers pushing him to participate. Rubio’s public reversals likely reflected that internal tug of war — a misstep that a steadier leader may have avoided.

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“I think Marco had genuine good intentions,” says Ana Navarro, a Miami-based Republican strategist who is friends with Rubio but is supporting Jeb Bush in 2016. “There’s no doubt he put in a lot of time and risked political capital in his attempt. But it all went to hell and turned into a perfect political storm. He managed to antagonize everybody on both sides of the issue. It was a mess — and ultimately all for nothing.”

Rubio declined to be interviewed for this article. Asked by Yahoo News in the halls of the Capitol whether he had “panicked” in 2013 when he backed away from the immigration bill, he did not break stride and ignored the question. Today, Rubio says he couldn’t have saved immigration reform; in fact, he insists that his continued advocacy would only have hurt the bill’s chances in the House. He also argues that future attempts will have to begin with border security and proceed, piecemeal, from there.

Rubio could still have the last laugh. If elected, he may one day usher his own brand of immigration reform through Congress — and look, in retrospect, like a canny operator who knew when to fold and wait for a better opportunity.

But that’s not how he looked, or acted, in the summer of 2013. Two Marco Rubios emerged over the course of that year. One was the bold leader who stuck his neck out on reform and tried to steer his party in a new direction. The other was the cowed follower who retreated into comfortable conservative talking points the minute things went south.

And so the central question of Rubio’s candidacy is simple: If the senator from Florida wins the White House in 2016, which Rubio is America going to get?

*****

Rubio and his family during his Senate campaign. (Photo: Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty)

For Marco Antonio Rubio, vacillating over immigration is nothing new.

As the son of working-class Cuban émigrés, Rubio has long been caught between two worlds on the issue. On the one hand, Cuban-Americans — especially older Cuban-Americans — tend to distinguish between Cuban exiles (who cannot return home) and other Latino immigrants (who technically can). Rubio was raised to believe in that distinction.

“Nothing against immigrants, but my parents are exiles,” he said during his 2010 Senate campaign. “The exile experience is different from the immigrant experience. … Folks that are exiles are people that have lost their country … and would still be living there if not for some political reason.”

And yet, at the same time, the Cuban-Americans Rubio grew up with in the tight-knit urban enclave of West Miami were a lot like the rest of America’s Latino immigrants. As a boy, he experienced bigotry firsthand. “You’re a bunch of Cubans,” someone shouted at his family during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. “Why don’t you go back home?” His parents both struggled to make ends meet in the service industry. For decades his dad toiled away tending bar in South Beach hotels; his mother slaved away as a maid until she retired in her 70s. They were surrounded by people who faced similar challenges — and Rubio continues to be today, because he still lives in West Miami.

A protester in front of Rubio’s Florida office. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty)

“Virtually everyone is Hispanic and virtually all of my neighbors came from somewhere else not that long ago,” Rubio said in 2012. “You know them not as a statistic, you know them as a human being — a walking, talking person who is in pain and who came here because they were hungry and their kids were starving and their family was, you know, hurting. … They did what they had to do to provide for them.”

Rubio’s mixed feelings about immigration — his deep-seated faith in the special status of Cuban-Americans offset by his visceral empathy for the broader immigrant experience — have shaped his politics since the start of his career. Immigration reform is treacherous terrain, especially for a rising Latino American star — and every time the ground has shifted, Rubio, sensing both the promise and the peril ahead, has adjusted his positioning in response.

By some estimates, more than three-quarters of the 200,000 men and women who work Florida’s farms and fields are undocumented immigrants. For years, the Sunshine State’s heavily Republican legislature has blocked any proposal to help these workers. But when Rubio arrived in the House in 2000, he surprised farmworker activists by siding against his fellow Republicans — and their backers in agribusiness.

“Rubio got it right away,” says Greg Schell, the managing attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, who at the time was pushing for a “radical” piece of legislation that would guarantee workers a minimum number of hours per week regardless of weather or crop conditions. “We met with him and explained it to him and he said, ‘Gee, that sounds totally fair.’ He wasn’t put off by the fact that it hadn’t been done anywhere else. So our initial response was, ‘Gosh, this guy might be a champion of workers — even though he’s a Republican.’”

For a time, Rubio was that champion. With Frank Peterman, a liberal African-American Democrat from St. Petersburg, the young legislator went on to co-sponsor a bill that would have banned labor contractors from withholding the cost of tools and transportation from workers’ salaries, and another that would have granted workers the right to sue contractors who didn’t pay the minimum wage. (Neither passed.) Rubio was also in favor of providing resident tuition discounts to the children of undocumented immigrants who had lived in Florida for at least three consecutive years before graduating from high school. Many of his constituents back in West Miami would have benefited from these proposals.

As speaker of the Florida House, he was no longer a champion of farmworkers’ rights, but he found a way to help the immigrant cause. (Photo: Phil Coale/AP)

By the time he became House speaker in 2007, Rubio was no longer actively campaigning for in-state tuition breaks or farmworkers’ rights. But he still found a way to help the immigrant cause. As the Washington Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia reported in “The Rise of Marco Rubio,” GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee were pressuring the new speaker to make immigration enforcement part of his agenda — but “Marco did not want anything to do with it,” according to one of his advisers. Instead, he decided to bury six immigration measures in what Roig-Franzia describes as “the legislative equivalent of the basement.” By preventing them from coming up for debate, Rubio kept Florida from adopting the kind of draconian laws that would later cause controversy in Arizona and Alabama.

That kind of ferocious debate wasn’t good for the state, Rubio reasoned — and it wouldn’t have been good for its most promising Latino Republican, either. “We didn’t do anything on immigration at all during those two years,” says J.C. Planas, a fellow Cuban-American Republican from Miami who was one of Rubio’s early allies in the House but later broke with him during an internal leadership battle. “The speaker didn’t let those immigration bills come to the floor because it wouldn’t have helped him.” In this case, Rubio’s political interests aligned with the interests of Florida’s undocumented immigrants.

That calculus changed, however, when he decided to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Charlie Crist for the party’s 2010 U.S. Senate nomination. Initially a long shot — a February 2009 Quinnipiac poll measured Crist’s support at 53 percent to the speaker’s measly 3 percent — Rubio began to gain momentum later that year by running to the governor’s right and captivating the nascent tea party movement.

The Senate candidate on the campaign trail. (Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty)

His rhetoric on immigration shifted accordingly. On the campaign trail, Rubio began to use the loaded phrase “illegal aliens.” He initially said that SB 1070, a bill that would allow authorities to stop people and demand their immigration papers, would transform Arizona into a “police state” — then he changed his mind and told a conservative magazine that he would have voted for it. He championed a controversial electronic verification system designed to help employers determine the legal status of potential hires. He curried favor with tea partyers by arguing that the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children, would have contributed to a “broader effort to grant blanket amnesty.” He also described “an earned path to citizenship” as “code for amnesty.” And he went on to abandon his earlier support for tuition breaks for the children of undocumented immigrants. “We’re a nation of laws,” Rubio declared at the time. “If you’re here in violation of the laws, you shouldn’t benefit from these programs.”

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By the time Rubio defeated Crist, those who had worked with him in Florida were beginning to wonder what — if anything — he stood for.

“His tone has changed on the subject,” said state Rep. Juan Zapata, another Miami Republican. “And to me it’s very obvious that it’s for political reasons.”

“You can’t be a leader if you can’t tell your friends they’re wrong,” adds Planas today. “Sure, there’s always a certain amount you have to bend. That’s politics. But, ultimately, I’ve never really seen Marco take on his friends publicly before, and that is troubling. I think he’s still finding his way.”

*****

Rubio would continue to find his way once he arrived in Washington. As the tea party passions of 2010 began to die down, and as the 2012 presidential contest began to heat up, the landscape shifted yet again. If Mitt Romney wanted to displace President Obama, the thinking went, he would have to improve the GOP’s dismal performance among Latino voters. And if Romney couldn’t do it, perhaps the party’s next nominee could. Rubio was mentioned as both a possible running mate and a possible successor.

And so Rubio began to drift back toward the center. In January 2012, when two young men held up a sign reading “Latino or Tea-Partino?” during one of the senator’s speeches, he told the crowd, “I’m not who they think I am. I don’t stand for what they claim I stand for.” A few months later, Rubio revealed that he was developing his own version of the DREAM Act. “If you were 4 years old when you were brought here … and have much to contribute to our future, I think most Americans, the vast majority of Americans, find that compelling and want to accommodate that,” he said at the time.

An interruption during a Rubio speech at a meeting of the Hispanic Leadership Network. (Photo: Joe Skipper/Reuters)

In April, Rubio met with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., the House’s top immigration-reform advocate, to discuss the details of his plan. Gutierrez was pleasantly surprised. “Here he was, a guy who had ridden the tea party wave into Washington and described the DREAM Act as amnesty,” Gutierrez told Yahoo News. “And now he wanted to take on the nativist voices in his own party. Whenever a Republican raises his hand and says, ‘Hey, I want to do something for immigrants,’ I jump for joy. ‘Let’s get it done.’”

The biggest shift, however, came at the end of 2012, when Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., approached Rubio in the Senate gym to ask if he was interested in collaborating on comprehensive immigration reform — and Rubio, who had previously insisted that “the best way to address immigration issues is sequentially,” didn’t say no. “[I want to] tie a pathway to citizenship to border security and enforcement,” Rubio told Durbin and his colleagues, according to a report by the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. “If you think that the Gang [of Eight] can put something together that’s consistent with these principles, then I’ll work with you. Otherwise, I’m not going to waste your time.” Initially, Democrats viewed the pathway and border security as separate issues. But they quickly agreed to connect them — and for the first time, Rubio agreed to consider a pathway to citizenship.

Thus began Rubio’s alliance with the so-called Gang of Eight.

“The politics of this have been turned upside down,” said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer at the Gang’s initial press conference on Jan. 28, 2013. “For the first time ever there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than supporting it.”

“There are 11 million human beings that are undocumented,” Rubio added. “We have an obligation and a need to address the situation.”

For the next six months, Rubio was, as one Senate aide told Lizza, “the cool jock and the captain of the football team” — the guy with whom “everyone wanted to hang out” but who still managed to remain a little aloof. In order to preserve his conservative credibility and prevent right-wing Republicans from torpedoing the deal, Rubio repeatedly distanced himself from the Gang over hot-button issues, opposing union demands and supporting biometric tracking for visa holders. But he also served as the group’s official ambassador to the right — “the linchpin on the Republican side,” as Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, one of Rubio’s fellow GOP Gang members, put it.

Rubio developed an alliance with the Gang of Eight on immigration reform.  (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Despite Rubio’s cautious maneuvering, the Democrats couldn’t have been more grateful. “He has been invaluable,” Durbin told Lizza in mid-2013. “He’s willing to go on the most conservative talk shows, television and radio, Rush Limbaugh and the rest. They respect him, they like him, they think he may have a future in the party.”

“He’s the real deal,” added Schumer. “He is smart, he is substantive. He knows when to compromise and when to hold. And he’s personable.”

Even McCain, who initially grumbled about having to share the GOP spotlight with the junior Floridian, offered some qualified praise for Rubio’s communication skills. “Look, I’m very proud of myself, OK?” McCain said. “But he articulates [the need for reform] better than anybody I know.”

McCain was right. In April, Rubio insisted that “leaving things the way they are” would be “the real amnesty.” A month and a half later, he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the “secure the borders” crowd had it wrong. “They want to see the enforcement first and then the legalization afterward,” Rubio said. “And that was initially how I thought about the issue as well. The problem with that is, what do we do in the meantime?”

But then, on June 27, 2013, the bill passed the Senate — and Rubio began to run away. Two polls showed double-digit drops in his net favorability rating among Republicans. Conservative pundits were pouncing. Spurred on by the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, tea party activists booed Rubio lustily at a rally outside the Capitol.

“I remember the hostility — my God, it was there,” says Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center and president of For America, a conservative political advocacy group. “I traveled around the country on the defund battle and I would talk to people, and they were not happy with him.”

And that’s when Rubio seemed to lose his nerve. When he went home to Florida for August recess, he mentioned immigration only when asked about it by constituents or reporters. Otherwise he avoided the topic. “Politically, it has not been a pleasant experience, to say the least,” he told one audience.

Protesters at a 2013 fundraiser for Rubio. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty)

By the fall, Rubio had gone from ignoring his own bill to repudiating it. “The House is just not going to jump on board for whatever the Senate passes,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in October. On CNN he was even more dismissive, referring to the Senate proposal as a purely partisan bill — calling it something “the Democrats in the Senate are demanding” — as if he and his fellow Republicans had never supported it.

The shift was startling. “In 2013, Rubio came on board,” says Gutierrez. “He was enthusiastic. He hired wonderful staff. He added experts. I met with him for over an hour — just he and I and his staff. He was extremely generous with his time and very devoted to putting together the kind of team that would lead us to a bill. But then, after it passed, he suddenly said, ‘I’m not for that.’”

*****

Rubio’s official position is that once immigration passed the Senate, the matter was out of his hands; any attempt to influence the House would have been counterproductive.

“After the Senate passed the bill, the Senate was done with its work,” says Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who worked closely with Rubio’s office on immigration reform. “Rubio knows that doing what [South Carolina Republican Sen.] Lindsey Graham did and lecturing the House is not going to get it passed. He did his job and then moved on.”

Others, including some who have worked for Rubio in the past, say that Democrats like Schumer negotiated an agreement in the Senate that they knew would anger conservatives in the House, because they — and the White House — ultimately didn’t want a bill to pass.

“They didn’t want to give him that win,” one former Rubio aide insists. “They saw the writing on the wall in terms of what it would do in 2016.”

Looking back, it’s easy to think immigration reform was always doomed. Conservative distrust ran deep; many Republicans believed that even if the House passed a palatable bill, it would be changed and corrupted when combined with the Senate version.

Despite the protests, Rubio still had his enthusiastic followers. (Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Yet, even as Rubio fled the scene, comprehensive reform appeared to have a shot. Conservative groups tied to Karl Rove ran television ads thanking Rubio for his work. The Koch brothers’ political organization, Americans for Prosperity, decided to hold its annual conference in Florida, and even awarded Rubio a prime speaking slot, a clear attempt by the pro-reform group to bolster him.

For months, a bipartisan group in the House had been locked in negotiations; a deal was close. The House Judiciary Committee had passed four separate pieces of immigration legislation. There was ongoing discussion about giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal status rather than citizenship — a discussion that remains a central part of the debate among Republicans to this day.

“I think we’re going to get to conference and I think we’re going to pass something ultimately,” Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a lead Republican negotiator in the House, said at the time. “I’m frankly still very optimistic. I’ve never thought that this was going to be an easy process.”

Advocates say that Rubio could have kept a respectful distance from the House negotiations while continuing to tout the virtues of immigration reform in the press.

“He allowed a wonderful opportunity pass to illustrate that he’s got the chops to bring people together,” argues Javier Palomarez, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “That, to me, is not a very smart move at all: After you’ve put your name on it, you’ve put all this work, to just let it sit out there and walk away.”

According to a source inside the House negotiations, Rubio’s actions hurt their momentum. So why did he change course, effectively making his own bill’s uphill battle even more difficult than it already was?

Of all the 2016 candidates, Rubio has the most devoted and tight-knit kitchen cabinet. So far, they have managed to prevent any leaks about what took place within their ranks during the summer of 2013.

But Yahoo News has uncovered some clues about the internal struggles that led to the biggest stumble of Rubio’s career.

None of the three paid staffers most intimately involved with Rubio’s immigration reform efforts — including his then chief of staff — still work for him today.

Close observers of Rubio World say the senator’s team was sharply divided for much of 2013 about the wisdom of pursuing immigration reform. On one side of the debate were his political advisers, who ranged from uneasy to unhappy: veteran operative Terry Sullivan (who moved that year to work full time on Rubio’s PAC and is now his campaign manager), plus his outside consultants Todd Harris, Heath Thompson and Malorie Thompson.

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Communications director Alex Conant and longtime aide Alberto Martinez, who is now Rubio’s chief of staff, were generally neutral.

At the same time, three of Rubio’s policy-minded staffers were heavily invested in working toward a deal: then chief of staff Cesar Conda, legislative director Sally Canfield and an aide named John Baselice.

Rubio’s pullback from immigration after it passed the Senate is attributed to his political advisers, who many think never wanted him out front on the issue to begin with, and who declined to speak about their private consultations with him.

The sharp divide among Rubio’s advisers — and the subsequent departure of those pushing for immigration reform — helps to explain why he seemed to be flailing in the summer of 2013. That kind of snapback — the senator’s sudden abandonment of his own signature legislation — is what happens when there are two competing groups in a politician’s camp, each pulling equally hard in opposite directions, and one of the groups loses its grip.

Over the next year, Conda drifted away from Rubio’s orbit; Sullivan took his place as the senator’s point person. In April 2014, Conda resigned from Rubio’s Senate staff to work for the senator’s political action committee, Reclaim America — a normal step for an adviser who is gearing up for a presidential campaign. But then, in November, Conda quit the PAC to go into private practice. He is said to still be in touch with Rubio, but his influence is nothing like it once was.

When asked over email if he could describe the debate inside Rubio World in 2013, Conda responded tersely, “You’ll have to chat with Conant.”

Conant said he would not discuss “personnel matters,” but said any linkage between immigration reform’s demise and the departures of Rubio’s key policy staffers was “silly.” They “left the government after years of great service for awesome private-sector jobs.”

Canfield and Baselice both departed in 2014 as well. Canfield, who was with Rubio until the end of the year, now serves in a senior position at a pharmaceutical company called AbbVie. Baselice left in July 2014 and now works at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Like Conda, neither would agree to talk about what happened in 2013.

*****

It’s not hard to see how a more seasoned leader than Rubio could have managed the immigration fallout better. He might not have been so swayed by his advisers’ conflicting opinions; he might have stood firm on principle, even after his poll numbers began to crater; he might have avoided the kind of transparent pandering that alienates friend and foe alike.

After announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty)

But as Rubio kicks off his presidential campaign, there are signs that he has learned the lessons of 2013 and emerged as a stronger candidate because of them. According to a veteran Republican consultant who has worked with Rubio’s team, the senator was upset, in retrospect, that his political advisers had yanked him back from immigration reform — and he decided to empower his policy people as a result. He went on to spend all of 2014 delving into the minutiae of taxes and foreign affairs. Even here, political considerations seemed to be in the mix — Rubio’s pivot from foreign policy moderate to uber-hawk, though plausible, has been jarring. Nonetheless, Rubio gave a series of serious-minded speeches that rebuilt his reputation as a man of substance, and penned a book that the New Republic called “chock full of policy ideas” when it was released in January.

“He’s better today than he was a few years ago,” argues Castellanos. “You can just feel it. These guys go to the Super Bowl, and the first time they get into the bright lights, they choke. Rubio was marked by the searing fire of defeat. I think he has grown up and gotten better for it.

“If he’s still the same guy,” Castellanos adds, “he’s in trouble.”

Rubio’s position on immigration reform hasn’t changed since the end of 2013; whenever he’s asked, he insists that the only realistic way to reform the system is to start with border security. His standing on the issue seems to have stabilized as a result.

“Even [Republicans] who disagree with Rubio on immigration reform — many of whom I’m hearing from now — are warming to him now because they see in him somebody who is able to get something accomplished,” says Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, noting that Rubio did help get a bill through the Senate.

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“He was able to do that as a freshman senator,” Moore said. “He was pushing for strong border security measures, and he got a good deal of that in the negotiations.”

When Rubio announced his presidential bid on April 14, he chose to speak in Miami’s historic Freedom Tower — the Ellis Island of the Cuban exodus. He didn’t harp on immigration reform, but he did reach out, in his way, to America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants: “the single mother who works long hours for little pay so her children don’t have to struggle the way she has”; “the student who takes two buses before dawn to attend a better school halfway across town”; “the workers in our hotel kitchens, the landscaping crews in our neighborhoods, the late-night janitorial staff that clean our offices.” The sense Rubio gave in remarks was of a man who knows these people need his help — and who is committed to helping them in the long run, even if he stumbles along the way.

After the speech, Carlos Avila, a 31-year-old lawyer from New Jersey, stood outside Freedom Tower waiting for Rubio to exit. In 2008, Avila and his wife had voted for Obama, but now they were dissatisfied with the lack of economic progress “for people like us” and leaning Republican. Asked what he liked about Rubio, Avila, whose parents brought him to the U.S. from Ecuador when he was 4 years old, immediately mentioned immigration. “Rubio is not a perfect candidate,” Avila said. “But his immigration stance, I think it’s a political calculation. Obama was the same on gay marriage. I think if Rubio were to get into the White House, he would be supportive of immigration reform.”

Demonstrators in support of immigration reform during a speech by Rubio in Miami. (Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP)

Rubio’s staff believe their man has been battle-tested by his immigration experience. They may even believe that he — as the most prominent Latino in the field and the only Republican candidate who has actually shepherded immigration reform through the Senate — could do more, if elected, to fix America’s broken immigration system than anyone else.

The road ahead will prove whether they are right. A presidential election is an unforgiving affair; eventually, the person behind the politician is exposed. At some point before Nov. 8, 2016, Rubio will confront a crisis that will strip him bare and reveal him for either the fearless and inspirational leader that his foot soldiers believe him to be — or as a politician with his finger eternally to the wind.

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