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Wednesday, March 7, 2012 - 12:30pm

For Marco Rubio, V.P. Prospects Bring New Scrutiny

Throughout the Republican presidential primary season, whenever there's talk about a short list of possible running mates, one name is nearly always at the top Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Rubio has only been in the Senate for a little more than a year, but his appeal is obvious. He's a young, charismatic, conservative Hispanic.

But as his national profile has risen, he has become a target for Democrats and advocacy groups who say he doesn't represent Latino voters.

In Miami last week, a dozen young Hispanic men and women gathered outside Rubio's office last week chanting, "Rubio: Latino or Tea Partino?"

Helping to lead the chants was Esteban Roncancio. He's 20 years old, studying computer engineering at Miami Dade College and is an undocumented immigrant. He's a prime candidate for the Dream Act, a bill that would give students and members of the military who are in the U.S. illegally a path to legal residency.

Out Of Step?

According to surveys conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, more than 90 percent of U.S. Hispanics support the Dream Act. Rubio opposes it.

Roncancio said that shows Rubio is out of step with his community. "Especially among young Latinos," he said, "we don't feel that we're similar to him. We want him to really be with his people, with his community, instead of with anti-immigrant Tea Party policies."

Roncancio is part of Presente Action, a pro-immigration Latino advocacy group that has targeted Rubio with its "No Somos Rubios" campaign "We are not Rubios."

Members of the group disrupted a speech Rubio gave in January to the Republican-leaning Hispanic Leadership Network. Rubio praised them for their courage in speaking out on an important issue, but made light of the campaign and their slogan.

"Someone is flying a plane over the building with a banner that says, 'Marco, No Somos Rubio.' Which means, 'Marco, we're not blond,' which by coincidence, neither am I," he said. In Spanish, "rubio" means "blond."

As the only Hispanic Republican in the U.S. Senate, Rubio has tried to stake out a nuanced some would say inconsistent position on immigration issues. In recent weeks, he's scolded Republicans for using harsh rhetoric on immigration. But he's also said he respects Arizona's right to impose tough restrictions on immigrants restrictions that are opposed by a large majority of Latinos.

Rubio says he opposes the Dream Act because it would set up a mechanism that he believes would encourage more illegal immigration. But, at the same time, he says something should be done for the young people brought to the U.S. by their parents and who now want to serve in the military or go to college. "I believe there's broad bipartisan support for the notion that we should somehow figure out a way to accommodate them," he says.

A Rising Profile

Although he's been in Congress for just over a year, Rubio's national name recognition has risen because of the vice presidential chatter. It's talk he dismisses, saying he's focused on his job as Florida senator.

But his rising profile has made him a target of attacks from the White House. Rubio has been at odds with the administration over a judicial nomination and U.S. policy in Central America.

More recently, he took heat from the White House for backing an amendment, introduced by Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, that would allow religious groups to opt out of providing birth control coverage as part of their health insurance plans. The White House labeled it the "Blunt-Rubio" amendment even though Rubio was just one of 23 co-sponsors.

Last week, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, joined the criticism. In a conference call organized by Presente Action, Gutierrez accused Rubio of tailoring his message depending on whom he's talking to.

Of Rubio, Gutierrez said, "Lately, he's been going to the Latino microphones of America and saying, 'Well, I'm telling my colleagues in the Republican Party that they should not be so harsh with their rhetoric.' But then he says something to a different audience, including his Tea Party base."

Rubio's office says they're not surprised by the attacks. Spokesman Alex Burgos says it's part of a concerted effort in a campaign year to undermine a popular Republican senator.

Lately, Rubio has kept a low media profile. He's working on an autobiography. He released a few potentially controversial tidbits recently, such as the fact that, as a child he was baptized and raised Mormon before embracing Catholicism. It's the kind of thing you might do if you're being considered soon for a high office like the vice presidency.

Gabriel Sanchez, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, says if Rubio is on the ticket, it's not clear how much he'll do to help Republicans win over Hispanics. A survey conducted in November found more than a third of Hispanics had never heard of him.

"I mean he's very well known obviously among folks close to Florida and among the Cuban-American population," Sanchez says. "But Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, they probably don't know much about him, and it's going to take time for them to even understand who he is and what his issues are."

And that's where Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups come in helping define who Rubio is, as Latinos across the country are just getting to know him.

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