By Alexander Bolton - 01/26/12 01:45 AM EST
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) stepped into the fight for the Republican primary vote in Florida on Wednesday, lending his star power to help Mitt Romney beat back an attack on his immigration stance.
Rubio, who has pledged neutrality in the race and is considered the odds-on favorite to be the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, chastised Newt Gingrich’s campaign for airing a Spanish-language radio ad that labeled Romney “the most anti-immigration candidate.”
“This kind of language is more than just unfortunate. It’s inaccurate, inflammatory and doesn’t belong in this campaign,” Rubio said.
Gingrich’s campaign quickly withdrew the ad, a testament to the junior senator’s pull with Republicans in the state and across the country.
“The truth is that neither of these two men is anti-immigrant,” Rubio said of Romney and Gingrich, according to The Miami Herald. “Both are pro-legal immigration and both have positive messages that play well in the Hispanic community.”
Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio, reaffirmed his boss’s neutrality and said the senator would defend Gingrich just the same if Romney launched an unfair attack.
“Sen. Rubio is staying neutral in the race, but he’s willing to correct the record when one of the campaigns strays away from it,” Conant said.
But the intervention left many wondering whether Rubio has revealed which candidate he’s rooting for.
“He’s refusing to endorse anyone, but it was very helpful to Romney’s campaign. One wonders if his loyalties lie a little more with the Romney camp,” said Richard S. Conley, an associate professor of politics at the University of Florida.
The 40-year-old senator has emerged as a kingmaker in Florida politics, a role once played by former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was vanquished by Rubio in their 2010 Senate race.
Crist endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, a moved that helped propel McCain to a decisive victory in the Sunshine State.
Rubio’s full-throated defense of Romney — directed at the crucial Hispanic voting bloc — could help decide the neck-and-neck race.
There are signs that Romney and Rubio could be a natural team-up for the Republican ticket in November.
About a half-dozen current and former Rubio aides reportedly worked for Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, and the two politicians share a network of fundraisers and donors.
Rubio also owes a debt of gratitude to Gingrich, who was one of the first to tell political reporters in Washington about the promising conservative talent who had once interned for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). He wrote the forward to Rubio’s 2006 book, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future, calling it “a work of genius.”
Gingrich has tried to capture some of the Rubio glow on the campaign trail, noting that the senator’s former campaign manager, Jose Mallea, supports him.
But Rubio has been more apt to do favors for Romney.
On Tuesday, Rubio dismissed Gingrich’s effort to draw parallels between Romney and Crist, who left the GOP in 2010 to run for the Senate as an Independent.
“Mitt Romney is no Charlie Crist. Romney is a conservative, and he was one of the first national Republican leaders to endorse me. He came to Florida, campaigned hard for me, and made a real difference in my race,” Rubio said in a statement.
Gingrich also endorsed Rubio in 2010, about a week after Romney did.
Rubio was exercising political power over GOP presidential candidates as early as 2007. He endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee after the former governor assured him he supported the embargo on Cuba.
Rubio’s defense of Romney on immigration makes for a powerful combination.
Florida-based political experts say Rubio’s comments could provide a big boost to Romney among Cuban-American communities in southeastern Florida, where Romney fared poorly four years ago.
Romney finished third in Miami-Dade County, an area with a large population of Cuban-American voters, trailing McCain by more than 50,000 votes in 2008.
Daniel A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, said Rubio is especially influential in Miami-Dade and other southern counties where Romney struggled.
“Rubio is going to be helpful in South Florida. For him to come out and say anything in support of Romney or covering Romney’s back is very important to shore up Romney’s last week of campaigning in Florida,” he said.
Smith said Romney’s endorsements from Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) would also help among Hispanic voters.
A Time/CNN poll released Wednesday showed Romney and Gingrich in a virtual tie a week before the Jan. 31 primary. The survey found 36 percent of likely voters backing Romney, compared to 34 percent who favored Gingrich.
Nicol Rae, a politics professor at Florida International University, said the haste with which Gingrich pulled his ad shows Rubio’s influence.
“What you saw shows the influence of the senator. That’s a fair indication that what he says has influence with both campaigns,” Rae said. “He obviously has a lot of credibility on issues related to Cuban Americans.”
— Greg Beckwith contributed to this report.