What’s driving Marco Rubio’s big shift in tone


Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority event in Washington.  (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

This post has been updated.

Here comes the new, sterner, snarkier Marco Rubio.

Back in 2012, Rubio showed nothing but empathy for activists who interrupted his speech at a Miami Hispanic leadership event.

The Florida senator and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate kicked into full I-feel-your-pain mode when two young activists waved signs that said, “Latino or Tea-Partino?” and shouted “Why don’t you support undocumented immigrants?” Rubio tried to calm the crowd, talking louder and louder as some members of the audience booed the activists. He pleaded with security officials as the young men were being removed from the hall.

“These young people are very brave to be here today,” Rubio told the audience. “They raise a very legitimate issue… Please. If they would give me the courtesy of finishing my speech where I talk about this, then I ask that you guys let ‘em stay. Because I think they’ll be interested in what I’m going to say.

That was then.

On Monday in South Carolina, Rubio chided immigration activists who interrupted his speech at a fundraiser for Jeff Duncan, a Tea Party-based candidate. As four young demonstrators unfurled a banner at the back of the hall, Rubio quipped that they should wait until 10 minutes into his speech. That would give him time for a water break, he said in a quippy reference to his awkward lunge for a bottle water while delivering the Republican response to the State of the Union.

One activist shouted, “You want to deport us and our families.”

But this time, there was no pleading with security guards. Instead, on a tape of the event obtained by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, Rubio can be heard chiding the demonstrators. “You’re doing harm to your own cause,” he says. “You don’t have the right to illegally immigrate to the United States."

He did, however, also hit some softer notes. At one point in his remarks, he said he "sympathized" with what the protestors were saying.

Rubio’s confrontation with the protestors in South Carolina comes at a tenuous time for the young senator. Last year, he incurred the wrath of the Republican Party’s right wing by championing a failed bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform package. Then he angered immigration activists by changing his stance and saying that he wouldn’t vote for the proposal after it ran into opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Since then, Rubio has been eager to win back the support of conservatives. His shift of tone on Tuesday might have said more to those conservatives than any words he could have used.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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