But Rubio’s role in recent controversies, including a dispute with the country’s biggest Spanish-language television network and new revelations that he had mischaracterized his family’s immigrant story, shows that any GOP bet on his national appeal could be risky.
Democrats had already questioned whether a Cuban American who has voiced conservative views on immigration and opposed the historic Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina justice, could appeal to a national Hispanic electorate of which Cubans are just a tiny fraction but have special immigration status. And Rubio’s support in Florida among non-Cuban Hispanics has been far less pronounced than among his fellow Cubans.
That ethnic calculus was further complicated by records, reported by The Washington Post last week, showing that Rubio had incorrectly portrayed his parents as exiles who fled Cuba after the rise of Fidel Castro. In fact, their experience more closely resembles that of millions of non-Cuban immigrants: They entered the United States 21
2 years before Castro’s ascent for apparent economic reasons.
Rubio made the exile story a central theme of his political biography, telling one audience during his Senate campaign, “Nothing against immigrants, but my parents are exiles.” A video, apparently produced for the conservative site RedState.com, shows black-and-white footage of Castro as Rubio speaks.
Even after the new reports of his parents’ entry, Rubio has said he remains the “son of exiles,” saying his parents had hoped to return to the island but did not because of the rise of a communist state.
But in elevating exile roots over the apparent reality of his parents’ more conventional exodus, Rubio risks setting up a tension point with the country’s Hispanic voters — most of whom are Mexican American and have immigrant friends or ancestors who did not have access to the virtually instant legal status now granted to Cubans who make it into the United States.
“If he does take that mantle, there’ll be a lot of clarification that he’ll have to make on a whole lot of issues,” said Lionel Sosa, a longtime GOP strategist.
Hispanic voters are growing in importance and are expected to play a pivotal role in deciding who wins the important presidential battlegrounds of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Florida. Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008, signaling a shift away from the GOP since 2004, when President George W. Bush won about 40 percent — an unusually high showing among Hispanics for a Republican.