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As Country Changes, Rubio And Republicans Try To Adjust

A protester in front of Sen. Marco Rubio's Doral, Fla., office in 2013 urges Rubio to stop opposing the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families in the Senate's immigration bill.

Navigating cultural issues like same-sex marriage and immigration has proved tricky for Republicans.

The country has grown rapidly more accepting of gay and lesbian marriage and relationships. And despite a shrinking base of white support and a fast-growing Latino population, Republicans have struggled to adjust.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida on Monday — hours before announcing his run for president — showed how he will try to chart a path through these choppy waters. He drew a fine line on gay rights when asked about his comments on the Indiana law allowing businesses to express their "religious freedom." And despite being one of the shepherds of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, he blamed his backing away from the measure on President Obama.

"I don't believe it's right for a florist to say, I'm not going to provide you flowers because you're gay," Rubio said in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

And yet, he still suggested there are proper grounds for a florist to refuse to serve a gay wedding.

"I think there's a difference between not providing services to a person because of their identity, who they are or who they love, and saying, I'm not going to participate in an event, a same-sex wedding, because that violates my religious beliefs. There's a distinction between those two things."

Rubio is trying to create a distinction, he said, between "people" and "events."

"It's immoral and wrong to say, I'm not going to allow someone who's gay or lesbian to use my restaurant, stay in my hotel, or provide photography service to them because they're gay," Rubio continued. "The difference here is, we're not talking about discriminating against a person because of who they are; we're talking about someone who's saying — what I'm talking about, anyway, is someone who's saying, 'I just don't want to participate as a vendor for an event, a specific event that violates the tenets of my faith.'"

Inskeep pressed the point for clarification: "What if two gay people get married and then they go that night to a hotel. Can the hotelkeeper refuse service to them?"

Rubio responded that a hotel, in that instance, could not.

"That's not part of an event," Rubio said. "Again, I mean, that's, there's a difference between saying, we're not going to allow you to stay in our hotel, common lodging establishment where people have a right to shelter, food, medical care, and saying we're not going to, what we're not going to do is provide services to an event, to an actual event, which is the wedding itself. And I think that's the distinction point that people have been pointing to, and, because mainstream Christianity teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman. People feel very strongly about that."

On immigration, Rubio, who speaks Spanish and is the son of Cuban immigrants, was one of the original Gang of Eight members of the Senate who crafted the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill. It passed the Senate, would have tightened border security and provided a path to citizenship for the 11 million to 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

Despite its overwhelming support in the Senate, it was unable to pass the more conservative House. Rubio has since backed away from support of a comprehensive bill. He blames the bill's failure on President Obama for, as he sees it, not enforcing immigration laws. Rubio cites the president's use of executive action as evidence. Obama and his supporters argue the president took unilateral action because of stalls in Congress.

Here, again, Rubio tries to draw a fine distinction, saying immigration remains "an issue we need to address," but it won't be done as long as Obama is president or in a comprehensive way.

"I still think we need to do immigration reform," Rubio told Inskeep. "I just don't think you can do it in a comprehensive, massive piece of legislation, given the lack of trust that there is today in the federal government. I honestly believe that the key to moving forward on immigration is to first and foremost prove to the American people that we are going to bring future illegal immigration under control — that if we legalize 12 million people, they won't be replaced by 12 million more who are here illegally."

Polls suggest as many as a third or more of Latinos are reachable for Republicans. A sizable portion consider themselves conservative, but they prefer Democrats, in large measure, because of the immigration issue. And that won't be something they can overcome by 2016 given the party's opposition to passing an immigration bill with a path to citizenship included while President Obama is in office.

But Rubio's not ceding any ground rhetorically on the issue. He took an unprompted swipe at Hillary Clinton, the Democratic favorite, who announced her candidacy Sunday.

"I've done more immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did," Rubio charged. "I mean, I helped pass an immigration bill in a Senate dominated by Democrats. And that's more than she's ever done. She's given speeches on it, but she's never done anything on it."

The question for Rubio is whether he can sell that message to a GOP primary electorate.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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