PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Wearing a 2010 vintage Marco Rubio campaign T-shirt and matching button, Cheryl Griffin spewed frustration that the man she helped win a long-shot conservative bid for Senate is now leading an immigration overhaul.
An evening downpour was falling on this coastal town, less a city than a hodgepodge of new and old subdivisions. But the weather did not deter Griffin, a small, skeptical woman, or her husband, Mark, a friendly man twice her size with rain dripping from his straw cowboy hat.
The Griffins, who came down from neighboring Fort Pierce, were protesting Rubio’s appearance at the annual Republican Party dinner. One poster, echoing an epithet used by a local talk show host, decried him as “Mr. Amnestyman.”
“I want him to back off,” Cheryl Griffin said. “It’s going to kill our party.”
These are the voices that have always carried the most in the immigration debate — the ones that have derailed past efforts as the political conversation devolved into partisan rhetoric.
Rubio knows he cannot persuade the Griffins and voters like them to consider the immigration reform he has proposed with a bipartisan Senate group. He does not even try.
At this stop in Port St. Lucie, one of several he made while home on a weeklong recess, the senator bypassed the protesters. He headed straight into a rented hall at the maroon- and mauve-striped Polish American Social Club filled with the party faithful, who were curious — and largely uncertain — about the 844-page bill.
These Republicans are the ones Rubio, the GOP’s fastest-ascending presidential hopeful, must convince that overhauling the nation’s immigration laws would be good for the nation. The catch, for many, is that the bill allows the estimated 11 million people in the country without legal status to stay and, eventually, to become citizens.
It is a tough sell, full of risks for Rubio and his party. In many ways the future of the bill, which heads to committee this week, depends on the performance of this boyish-looking son of Cuban immigrants, this tea party favorite, who is uniquely positioned to spread the message.
“What we have right now is a legal immigration system that is broken,” Rubio began, as diners pushed aside empty $125 surf and turf plates to listen.
The border, he said, would be made more secure under the bill. “No one can tell me the first country that landed a man on the moon cannot secure the border of the United States with Mexico,” he said.
Many of the people here illegally did not “jump the fence,” he continued, but overstayed their visas. The bill, he explained, would fix this systemic flaw by tracking not just visa entries but exits.
“An increasing number of people recognize that what we have in this country is unsustainable: We have 11 million human beings living among us, illegally, in this country in violation of our immigration laws,” he said.
There was a quiet tension in the hall as Rubio stood on stage. The county GOP’s banner hung behind him on red velvet curtains.
“It is not my fault, by the way,” he said, cutting through the silence. “The decisions that led to that happening were made when I was in ninth grade.”
Laughter filled the room, and the senator skillfully capitalized on it.
He thundered in a language the party faithful understand: “They won’t quality for Obamacare. They won’t qualify for food stamps. They won’t qualify for welfare. The only thing they’ll qualify for is to work and to pay taxes.”
The applause and cheers were robust. He never mentioned the word “citizenship.”
Leigh Lamson, a retiree and Army veteran who did two tours as a pilot in Vietnam, is as passionate in his political views as he is pragmatic. A conservative who listened to Rubio at the dinner, he understands why some Americans would prefer to deport immigrants who “come here to make anchor babies and U.S. citizens.”
“I don’t mean that in a racist way,” he added.
He is worried the bill is a ploy by Democrats to gain new voters from the immigrant population. But he knows mass deportation is not practical. “You have to be realistic,” he said. “I don’t think we would ever accomplish that.”
In Rubio, he sees the best hope for solving the immigration problem. And he understands the GOP needs to attract Latino and minority voters to compete in elections. But he fears, even with Rubio’s best efforts, Congress will sneak provisions into the bill he won’t like or that won’t work.
The bill is a complicated series of political trade-offs — border security and employee verification requirements alongside new guest-worker programs and a 13-year route to citizenship.
As Rubio pressed his sales campaign, his supporters in such places as Port St. Lucie, a boom-and-bust suburb on the Treasure Coast in eastern Florida, are just beginning to consider the bill.
Buying groceries at Wal-Mart after a day of substitute teaching fourth-graders, Lisa Ronkko, a mother of three grown children, said she was intrigued by Rubio’s speech after reading about it in the newspaper.
“There has to be some answer,” she said, agreeing with Rubio that an extended path to citizenship could work.
Ronkko has volunteered with the Republican Party in the past and voted for Rubio in 2010. She has watched his swift rise as a potential presidential prospect. “He’s doing great,” she said. “If it’s a good answer, it will define him.”
Others are not so sure. Eating a home-packed lunch of sandwiches and sliced veggies after walking their dog Jacob, a puggle, over a causeway to a barrier island, Steve and Rita Borucki were skeptical.
“My biggest concern about it is: Is there going to be amnesty?” asked Steve, a retired Verizon manager from upstate New York.
The couple, both Republicans, bought a foreclosed home in Port St. Lucie a few years ago and retired here. They remained unconvinced that employers would verify the legal status of workers, as the bill would require.
The Boruckis voted for Rubio, but think he needs to make the law tougher on the various enforcement provisions if he hopes to win conservative support. “He’s got to put teeth into it or he’s going to lose the core,” Steve said.
Florida Republicans, especially conservatives, have a fondness for their junior senator and are protective of him. When a talk radio host encouraged protesters to swarm the dinner, Bill Paterson, the St. Lucie County GOP chairman, was equally determined to keep them, and the pro-immigration-reform counter-protesters, outdoors.
A retired cop from New York City, Paterson has a weathered face and a lawman’s stiff spine, even after a long night. He invited Rubio to the dinner — “the No. 1 draw” — well before immigration had emerged as a top issue.
Paterson has an open mind on the senator’s bill, even as he counts Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, whose hard-line views on immigration have made him a national figure, as one of his heroes.
“I believe that something needs to be done on immigration,” he said, “and we have the best possible person doing the negotiating.”