Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is trying to do what some say is impossible: Throw his party a lifeline on immigration reform without alienating those opposed to comprehensive immigration reform and without pushing Mitt Romney to flip-flop on an issue on which he ran to the right in the primary. Rubio is determined despite naysayers to come up with a Republican version of the DREAM Act. While pundits and lawmakers are already racing to embrace or reject it, Rubio told Right Turn in a phone conversation Friday afternoon that there is a lot yet to be determined before he introduces any legislation.

Is now — an election year and a time when illegal immigration has declined — the right time to fix the immigration system? Rubio isn’t setting out to fix the entire immigration system. Nevertheless he tells me, “We’ve had a broken, legal immigration system and illegal immigration.” Indeed, given the Arizona legislation, the ongoing cry from employers for more visas for qualified, high-skill workers and as many as 11 million illegal residents currently in the United States, hardly anyone is happy with the system as it is.

In broad strokes Rubio’s version of the DREAM Act would give illegal immigrants brought here as children non-immigrant visas so they can legalize their status and go to college or join the military. They could eventually apply for residence and citizenship using the existing immigration system — just like any other legal immigrant. Unlike the original DREAM Act, Rubio’s bill would not create a special pathway to citizenship. Rubio says to lawmakers and the public: “Don’t approach it as a legalistic matter.” The legal status of this subset of the illegal-immigration population, he suggests, is “akin to refugees. Their plight is not their doing.” He explains, “A non-immigrant visa allows you to get a driver’s license, to pay taxes, to go to college. But [for citizenship] you have to access the system through a separate process.”

Rubio and his staff emphasize that his version of the bill would not confer citizenship on this group, which would provide a so-called “anchor” to allow family members to enter the United States. It was the prospect of chain migration that led most Republicans to oppose the original DREAM Act.

Under Rubio’s plan a nonimmigrant visa would be of limited duration and apply only to children brought here under a certain age who have been living continuously in the United States, graduated high school and are going to college. It would apply only to past cases (there is no open door to provide incentives to parents to bring children here illegally in the future), and it would exclude those with criminal records. Plainly, this is a small but important sliver of the entire immigration problem.

In talking to Rubio it’s clear this is a work in progress with much left to be determined. There is, as yet, no firm estimate of the number of people who this would affect. Among the details to be determined are the age cut-off for people who entered the country and the time period covered by the bill (up to the present day?). Also unclear is how to address the small group that is in the military; Rubio says, “We’re open-minded on that. Right now by executive order you can award citizenship.”

News accounts have portrayed Rubio’s fellow Republicans as signing on or nixing the idea. In fact, that isn’t what has been going on. On the Hill, Rubio says, “They’ve been generally supportive. No one is saying to stop what I’m doing.” No presidential candidate is going to sign onto something that is admittedly not concrete. But Rubio seemed pleased with the reaction from the Romney camp. “I’ve updated them on the concept. They are waiting for details,” he tells me.

Rubio says that his time frame for introducing a specific piece of legislation is “certainly not indefinite.” But it’s also clear Rubio doesn’t intend do this in a slap-dash manner. He says that “we don’t want to have more questions than answers when we put something out.”

It’s no secret that Republicans are drawing only a small portion of Hispanic voters. I ask Rubio why this is. To my surprise he doesn’t begin with immigration or Republican rhetoric, but with voting patterns developed over generations. He explains, “A lot of it is historic. Look at the Cuban community in Florida. It is largely Republican. But they are Democrats in New Jersey.”

The task of weaning a constituency from the other party isn’t simple or quick, Rubio cautions.“We’re not going to get it done in 30-second ads. We need a long-term commitment. Sometimes these things take a decade.”

Rubio is obviously in this for the long haul, trying to build a growing base of support for the GOP within a significant segment of the electorate. He doesn’t, however, spare fellow Republicans from criticism. He says, “In the last five or 10 years Republicans have been very good at talking about what they are against. They haven’t been so good at talking about what they are for.” He nevertheless is convinced that Hispanic voters will have a natural affinity for the Republican message, so long as it is clearly and consistently presented. “We have to be identified as the party of entrepreneurship and upward mobility,” he says.

You can imagine there might be a certain panic about the prospect of a Republican DREAM Act among both Democrats who have demagogued the issue and among immigration exclusionists who would rather do nothing on immigration reform. A Rubio DREAM Act would shake up the politics of immigration. Those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration's failure to deliver anything but rhetoric and a flimsy lawsuit against Arizona may welcome a bill that makes small but important progress. The White House will have its hands full trying to keep pro-immigration reform activists from jumping ship.

If Rubio is successful he may give Romney and his party their own pathway — this one into the Hispanic community. If electoral politics are about moving the needle in your direction, Rubio’s DREAM Act may be a critical part of constructing a winning message and coalition for 2012 and beyond.