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Marco Rubio's hoping Jeb Bush implodes over immigration

Jeb Bush, at CPAC on Friday.
Jeb Bush, at CPAC on Friday.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty

  1. In a Friday speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Jeb Bush defended his support of immigration reform to skeptical conservative activists.
  2. Bush straightforwardly argued that "we should give" unauthorized immigrants a "path to legal status," saying, "There is no plan to deport 11 million people."
  3. Earlier that day, Sen. Marco Rubio was reluctant to go that far. In contrast to his previous support for legalization, he now argued that one can't "have a conversation" about it until people are convinced that unauthorized immigration will cease.
  4. A small group of activists made a bit of a ruckus by walking out of Bush's speech, but overall, his performance was praised by the media.

Different approaches from Bush and Rubio reveal their different strategies

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are both from Florida, and they're both eyeing presidential bids. But Bush's undeclared campaign has, so far, been going much better than Rubio's. He's been locking down support from the GOP establishment and his home state, and reportedly raising absurd sums of money. Rubio, by contrast, has made little progress in the invisible primary so far — and it's unclear why Florida donors would back him instead of Bush.

But when Bush spoke to CPAC Friday afternoon, in a Q&A with Sean Hannity of Fox News, he emphasized his support for a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants — with plain, straightforward language that most of his potential GOP rivals shy away from. It's central to his strategy of being willing to "lose the primary to win the general" — but it's risky, and may eventually sink his burgeoning campaign.

Even Rubio, who co-authored the Senate immigration reform bill containing a path to citizenship, is now hesitant to say he supports a path to legal status. Why? If his positioning at CPAC is any indication, he's trying to be ready in case immigration brings Bush down — in hopes that his own murkier position will be more acceptable to the base, and allow him to step in if the frontrunner implodes.

Bush won't budge from a path to legal status

In his CPAC appearance, Bush decided not to give a prepared speech, and instead spent 20 minutes taking questions from Sean Hannity of Fox News. Hannity's questioning — not quite unfriendly, but not softball either — was designed to let Bush address the concerns conservative activists have about him, particularly on immigration reform.

So, responding to Hannity, Bush was clear and straightforward  — he supports a "path to legal status" for unauthorized immigrants.

"The simple fact is, there is no plan to deport 11 million people. We should give them a path to legal status where they work, where they don't receive government benefits, where they don't break the law, where they learn English, and where they make a contribution to our society," Bush said.

Bush gave the answer with the normal prefaces. He argued that border security should "first and foremost" be enforced, and that the legal immigration system should be reoriented away from family-based immigration and toward economic benefits.

But later, Hannity quizzed Bush about his support for offering in-state tuition for young unauthorized immigrants in Florida, and Bush said he stands by it. "The in-state tuition was passed [last] year, by one of the most conservative legislatures, I might add, and a conservative governor," Bush said.

This is an issue we'll hear about again. During a September 2011 presidential debate, Mitt Romney hammered Rick Perry over Perry's support for a similar plan. "To go to the University of Texas, if you're an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? That's $22,000 a year," Romney said.

Overall, on immigration, Bush stood his ground and made it clear there would be a great deal of room to his right, for the rest of the field. Rubio tried to take it.

Rubio: We're not ready for a conversation

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio at CPAC on Friday. (Alex Wong / Getty)

Earlier that morning, Marco Rubio — who himself has been hammered over his co-authorship of the Senate immigration reform bill — took a very different approach. He basically said he was going to avoid the legalization issue for the time being, saying it's impossible to "have a conversation" about it. That gives him some potential to set himself apart from the frontrunner.

Rubio maintained that immigration reform remains "a serious problem that has to be confronted," but he notably refused to reiterate his support for a path to legalization — and explained why. "You can't even have a conversation about that until people believe and know — not just believe, but it's proven to them — that future illegal immigration will be controlled and brought under control," he said.

If you read between the lines of his remarks, Rubio clearly still believes that a path to legal status is the best approach. "Yeah, you have 10 or 12 million people in this country, many of whom have lived here for longer than a decade, have not otherwise violated our laws, other than the immigration laws, I get all that," he said. But he reiterated that a "reasonable conversation" about what to do about them couldn't happen until people become convinced that the border is secure. So while he certainly isn't denouncing Jeb's position as "amnesty," he has positioned himself to the frontrunner's right.

A hostile crowd for Bush

Laura Ingraham goofy face

Laura Ingraham makes a face for the camera before her CPAC Q&A with Chris Christie Thursday. (Alex Wong / Getty)

Both candidates received a mixed response from their respective audiences. All along, it was quite clear that Bush, the apparent frontrunner, wouldn't receive the warmest embrace from the CPAC crowd. Talk radio host Laura Ingraham spent several minutes harshly criticizing Bush from the CPAC podium Friday morning, to laughter and cheers. "Jeb and Hillary can run on the same ticket," she suggested, saying the two agreed on "Common Core and amnesty."

Ingraham added that "fifty rich families" were trying to bring about a "coronation" during the primaries, and said she was tired of "back room deals" and "closed door meetings as opposed to real conversations with the voters."

She also made a not-so-veiled reference to a recent Washington Post report about Jeb's wife, Columba, spending tens of thousands of dollars on jewelry. "Women could actually turn out in droves for Jeb Bush. I mean, what woman doesn't like a man who gives her a blank check at Tiffany's?" she said, adding that "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" would be "a great theme song for Jeb Bush."

An underwhelming protest

William Temple

Tea Party activist William Temple, in a picture last year. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

So the potential for a hostile reception for Bush wasn't a surprise. Tea Party activist William Temple said yesterday that he'd lead a walkout of attendees from Bush's speech, Seth McLaughlin of the Washington Times reported, due to immigration and other issues.

So Bush's team made a contingency plan. As Slate's Betsy Woodruff reported, Bush's Right to Rise PAC organized buses of supporters to come to the conference for his speech today. Many were seen filing into the ballroom, wearing bright red "Jeb!" buttons, minutes before his speech was scheduled to begin.

Once Bush walked onstage, Temple, dressed in colonial garb and holding a "Don't Tread on Me" flag, did indeed lead a small exodus. The protesters' chanting and shouting outside were then occasionally audible during Bush's remarks, but the ballroom remained packed with Bush's own enthusiastic supporters, alongside the conservative activists who were willing to give him a hearing. Later, Bush joked to the Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe that only five people had walked out, compared to "the 5,000 who stayed."

Though media expectations for Bush's performance were low — if he didn't get booed offstage, it would probably count as a victory — the reviews afterward were glowing. "Jeb Bush was very, very good at CPAC today," a headline from the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza read. "That had the potential to be disastrous, but Jeb turned in a really strong performance," The Hill's Jessica Taylor tweeted.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Republican primary voters agree.