One big reason: Many of his potential 2016 rivals—Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—are marching in the same direction.
Despite differences in emphasis, all are supporting changes to immigration law that would offer an eventual pathway to citizenship for those now in the country illegally. That distinguishes them from many of the party’s rank-and-file members in the House and Senate.
“It makes a very big difference that Marco Rubio and Rand Paul and others are trying to unite different parts of the party around reform,” said David Kochel, a veteran GOP strategist based in Iowa. “That is helping alter people’s views.”
The embrace of a full-scale immigration deal by an array of potential presidential aspirants underscores a brisk GOP realignment on the issue since November, when the party’s nominee, Mitt Romney, got just 27% of the Hispanic vote. That was the lowest share by a Republican in nearly two decades.
Both of the past two GOP presidential-primary fields were dominated by candidates who opposed allowing illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. Though a strong proponent now, Sen. John McCain, the eventual 2008 nominee, divorced himself during that year’s primaries from a big immigration bill he helped write that would have granted legal status to illegal workers. President George W. Bush embarked on his big immigration push only after he won re-election in 2004.
Any immigration deal that would include a route to citizenship has plenty of loud Republican critics, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. And opposition from the GOP voting base could blow up any effort to get a big immigration package through the Republican-led House.
But party leaders and campaign strategists insist that at the national level, at least, immigration is becoming a less toxic issue on the right, in part because the leading figures now pushing for change have sway with so many wings of the party. Messrs. Rubio and Paul both came to Washington amid the 2010 GOP wave and retain high credibility among conservatives. The Kentucky senator also has corralled the libertarian following of his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Mr. Ryan, a longtime supporter of a comprehensive overhaul, makes his pitch with a focus on the economic upside, mirroring the message of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. In a speech Monday in Chicago alongside Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, Mr. Ryan said a big immigration deal would help the U.S. “regenerate.”
“The rhetorical race to the bottom on who can be toughest on immigration reform is pretty much gone,” said Jennifer Korn, a pro-immigration activist who tried to muster conservative support for an immigration overhaul as a Bush White House official in 2007.
n a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 70% of self-described conservatives said they would support a pathway to citizenship if illegal immigrants were first required to pass a long vetting process that included a criminal background test, proof of employment and payment of back taxes.
Still, Mr. Rubio and other potential 2016 candidates are proceeding cautiously, reflecting unease within the party that a broad legislative deal could fall apart if proponents push too fast. Some are modulating their own views as they go.
Mr. Paul, who says the future of the Republican Party will hinge on its ability to win over Latino voters, has skirted using the word “citizenship” in describing the measures he favors, saying in a speech last month that terms such as “citizenship” and “amnesty” simply “polarize the country.” After the Boston Marathon bombings, which authorities believe were carried out by two legal immigrants with Chechen backgrounds, Mr. Paul also called for a pause in the legislative debate to weigh the national-security implications.
Mr. Rubio, a member of the Senate “Gang of Eight” that put forward a sweeping immigration bill last week, sits for interviews almost daily with skeptical talk-radio hosts, including many who remain hostile to his proposed legislation. But he also has been at pains to assure conservatives that all sides will be heard, and that much will change in the Gang of Eight bill as it moves through the Senate.
“Here’s my encouragement to my colleagues who don’t agree with the bill that we’ve crafted: Change it,” Mr. Rubio said Thursday on the Senate floor.
Conservative groups assessing potential immigration pitfalls contend that Republican voters’ views are far from fixed and will be molded by how conservative lawmakers talk about the challenge. The conservative Hispanic Leadership Network, a group with close ties to former Gov. Bush, now hands out a memo to help coach Republican lawmakers who support overhauling the immigration system.
“Don’t use the phrase ‘pathway to citizenship,’ ” the memo said. “Do use the phrase ‘earned legal status.’ ”
A version of this article appeared The Wall Street Journal.