After Mitt Romney lost the presidential election in 2012, Rubio started at the top among possible Republican hopefuls for 2016. Rubio could be counted on to return Florida back to the Republican column, something that hasnt happened in presidential elections since 2004. With the Hispanic population continuing to expand, Rubio could help cut into Democratic leads with that group. Despite the famous water-bottle incident, Rubio is usually a solid speaker, even an inspiring one at times.
But it all came crashing down for Rubio after his role in the Gang of Eight in pushing immigration reform. Republicans and conservatives across the country never forgave Rubio for his role in backing it, even as he would throw jabs at Barack Obamas handling of immigration.
Rubio has talked various issues in recent months -- opposition to Obamacare, foreign policy, taxes, the economy -- as hes tried to get conservatives back on board with a possible presidential bid. On Wednesday, Rubio spoke at Catholic University in Washington and he helped polish his appeal to social conservatives. Rubio spoke out against abortion and warned that religious Americans will face prejudice for opposing gay marriage.
Its an interesting move for Rubio. Hes always been a social conservative but it never was front and center in his brief time on the national stage. Social conservatives have had mixed results in recent Republican presidential primaries with some doing surprisingly well -- Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum come to mind -- while others, like Rick Perry, crash. Iowa, not exactly Rubio country, has treated social conservatives well in Republican presidential caucuses.
Rubio should feel somewhat emboldened in recent days with his speech at Catholic University and his spat with Hillary Clinton. If Rubios role in immigration reform hurt him as a presidential candidate, it has done little harm to him in Florida. Polls show Florida Republicans continue to back Rubio with often more than 75 percent of them supporting him. Rubio also does well with independents in Florida, placing him in good shape if he does want another term in the Senate.
Theres also no harm done in trying to woo social conservatives if Rubio does make a presidential bid, especially as 2016 is shaking up as the most competitive Republican contest in decades. Outside of Ted Cruz, none of the leading candidates -- Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush -- are particularly associated with social conservatives. The likes of Santorum, Perry and Huckabee could make return appearances but they have baggage of their own.
If Rubio gets in, he needs to survive in Iowa and do well in South Carolina and Florida. Some conservatives will never trust him for his role in immigration reform but there are ways to appeal to Republican voters on other issues. Thats clearly on Rubios mind as he starts to turn his attention to social issues.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.