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Why Limbaugh is gushing over Marco Rubio

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
February 1, 2013 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
Marco Rubio
Marco Rubio
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Conservative talk radio hosts are gushing over Marco Rubio
  • Navarrette: As the immigration debate reignites, Rubio's star power is increasing
  • He says the GOP has big plans for the senator, including maybe the presidency
  • Navarrette: Not all conservatives agree with Rubio, but he's affecting immigration debate

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. He has hosted radio shows in Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- The phrase: "President Marco Rubio" is music to the ears of conservatives who are eager to prove they are not anti-Hispanic while still supporting one of their own: a solid conservative. And so it is that, as the immigration debate reignites, the Florida senator's star power is winning over the world of conservative talk radio.

Whether it's the radio shows hosted by Mark Levin or Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, Rubio's appearances are being met with gushing accolades. The talkers are not sold on everything he says about how to fix the immigration system, but they're praising him nonetheless. Levin called Rubio a "very, very impressive man." Limbaugh swooned: "Well, what you are doing is admirable and noteworthy. You are recognizing reality. You're trumpeting it, you're shouting it."

How cozy. The reality that Rubio is recognizing is twofold. One, the nation's immigration system is broken and fixing it requires figuring out what to do with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. And two, the Republican Party, if it hopes to live to fight another day in a country that is increasingly ethnically diverse, can't just be known as the party that is against illegal immigration but has to build a reputation for supporting legal immigration as well.

Rubio: Obama sees immigration as a 'political' matter

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Rubio thinks that the way you fix both problems is comprehensive immigration reform -- securing the border, making it easier for high-skilled immigrants to get green cards, starting a guest worker program for industries like agriculture with jobs Americans aren't doing, and creating a conditional pathway to earned citizenship for the undocumented.

Many Republicans have a word for that: "amnesty." And, almost uniformly, conservative talk radio does not like amnesty.

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Yet, you wouldn't know it by the warm reception that Rubio got when he got on the airwaves. Right-wing talkers are smitten with the Hispanic Republican and potential 2016 presidential candidate. And it is spilling into the immigration debate.

So much so that Limbaugh felt compelled in his show on both Wednesday and Thursday to insist that, no, he had not fallen madly for Rubio, who had been a guest on his show the day before. Limbaugh explained to his millions of listeners that he liked and admired Rubio and considered him a strong conservative and a star of the Republican Party. And Limbaugh suggested that this fondness for the senator might have left some thinking that he was endorsing the immigration reform plan put forth on Monday by Rubio and seven other senators from both parties.

Sen. Nelson: 'Give Rubio a break'
Sweeping immigration changes proposed

Limbaugh is not there and he may never get there. He still rejects as "amnesty" the idea of giving illegal immigrants an earned pathway to citizenship and rejects it as unacceptable. Besides, he insists, if the border isn't secure, Rubio is likely to drop his support for the plan as well.

What Limbaugh thinks about immigration -- a subject he doesn't really know very well -- isn't important. What is important is the massive footprint that Rubio is already leaving on the immigration debate, the value that he adds to the Senate's reform-minded "Group of Eight," and the near-hypnotic effect he's having on some conservatives who -- while they don't like what he's proposing to fix the nation's immigration system -- do like him a great deal.

Rubio, pitching immigration plan to conservatives, identifies sticking points

Alas, the love fest is not complete. Not all conservatives are willing to give Rubio the benefit of the doubt. Some conservative bloggers -- including Michelle Malkin and the folks at Redstate.com -- are vehemently opposed to what he is proposing, and they've gone after him aggressively. Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana has characterized the Rubio approach to immigration reform as "amazingly naive."

But that hostility hasn't followed Rubio onto talk radio. So what's going on here? Why isn't Rubio getting more static from the radio talkers? I can think of three reasons.

First, the Republican Party has big plans for Rubio, which may include the presidency, and the talkers know enough to get out of the way of a speeding train. Besides, when they interview him, even if they could slice him up rhetorically into itty-bitty pieces -- and I'm not sure they could -- why would they want to?

Second, Rubio is a thoughtful communicator who understands radio and excels in that medium. I'm a former radio talk show host who has worked in a half dozen markets, and I know that doing that kind of work teaches you that there is such a thing as talking for radio. If you understand pacing, and when to pause or accelerate, you'll hit a homerun. Rubio does.

And third, whether many Republicans realize it or not, there is a strong conservative case to be made for fixing our immigration system by encouraging the free flow of labor and saving illegal immigrants from heavy-handed enforcement tactics. The Obama administration divides thousands of families and deported a record number of people, more than 400,000, in 2012. If you're a conservative who supports the free market, family values and limited government -- and who doesn't like the spectacle of immigration agents busting down doors and hauling away grandmothers in handcuffs and dropping kids in foster care -- comprehensive immigration reform could be for you.

And so could Marco Rubio. After all, he has already charmed a crowd that is notoriously hard to please.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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