CPAC could make or break Rubio

Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Trump bets base will stick with him on immigration MORE has a lot to prove at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

The right soured on the onetime conservative movement darling, after he backed the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill, and he finished a disappointing seventh in last year’s CPAC straw poll of potential GOP presidential candidates.

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Two years later, the Republican senator from Florida is eyeing a 2016 White House run and working hard to mend fences with the GOP’s base. How he fares when he takes the stage Friday morning will go a long way toward showing whether he can be successful.

Rubio has rebounded recently within the party, in part because of his expertise on foreign policy.

After President Obama announced his decision to ease relations with Cuba, Rubio became the leading GOP voice of opposition.

Amid growing threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Rubio has pointed to his own past warnings about the threats of Islamic extremism.

In contrast to the more isolationist-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a favorite in this year’s straw poll, Rubio has advocated for military action against ISIS and tougher sanctions on Iran.

When those differences were put on display at a forum last month at the Iowa Freedom Summit — backed by conservative donors Charles and David Koch — the contrast was widely seen as helping Rubio.

Instead of delivering a red-meat speech, Rubio will participate in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity. Immigration is certain to come up, given Hannity’s interest in the issue and the debate among Republicans about tying legislation that would overturn President Obama’s immigration actions to funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Immigration questions have dogged Rubio in media appearances promoting the release of his new book, American Dreams: Restoring the Land of Opportunity, both from conservatives unhappy with his initial work on the comprehensive reform bill and other pro-reform advocates frustrated that Rubio, who they saw as one of them, abandoned them.

Rubio has been unafraid to defy the political odds in pursuing a presidential run over reelection to the Senate, and CPAC gives him a chance to contrast his candidacy not only with Paul, but with two other rivals.

The first is his onetime mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose decision to explore a campaign is a huge challenge for Rubio because they come from the same state.

The two will speak on the same day at CPAC, and there’s some reason to think the crowd could respond more positively to Rubio than Bush.

While the senator has backed off his support for comprehensive immigration reform, Bush has been full-throated in calling for changes including giving legal status to illegal immigrants. On the right, Bush’s statement from last year that many illegal immigrants come to the country as an “act of love” went over poorly. 

Rubio also skipped the Iowa Freedom Summit last month, where Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) made a substantial splash.

That appearance helped Walker, who will also speak at CPAC, emerge as a top contender for the GOP presidential nomination; he is attractive to both grassroots conservatives and establishment Republicans. He could be a major rival to Rubio if the Floridian hopes to get traction in next year’s primaries.

Notably, the politicians’ different strategies in responding to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s comments that President Obama doesn’t love America received a ton of attention last week. Walker at first doubled down, while Rubio said he wouldn’t question the president’s patriotism but did disagree with his policies. 

Something Rubio might be more interested in highlighting is his foreign policy experience compared to Walker’s.

Rubio burst onto the national stage during the advent of the Tea Party, forcing then-Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Florida GOP Senate primary and eventually defeating Crist, when he ran as an Independent.

When he arrived in Washington, the freshman senator was hailed as a young face the party badly needed. A February 2013 Time magazine cover proclaimed him “The Republican Savior.”

Since then, he’s become more of an establishment figure, something that has made powerful donors such as the Koch brothers take notice.

To win in 2016, Rubio must win over the GOP establishment and parts of the grass roots that give the Republican Party its energy. 

The efforts to fully rehabilitate himself with the base — and prove why he’s a top-tier candidate — will start Friday at CPAC.