WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans face a delicate balancing act as they embrace an unprecedented shift in their views on immigration reform - and no one better exemplifies the potential risks and rewards than Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Rubio has courted conservative commentators in recent weeks, outlining a set of principles for changes in immigration law that include a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants who live in the United States. He's in the vanguard of a growing list of prominent Republicans who see their election-year pummeling among Hispanic voters as a wakeup call to address a broken immigration system and repair their standing among an evolving electorate.
As an emerging Republican star, Rubio could burnish his resume for a 2016 presidential campaign by steering immigration reform through the Senate. A bipartisan Senate group that includes Rubio reached agreement this week on a wide-ranging immigration plan that includes a citizenship provision.
Other Republicans are moving on the issue. A bipartisan group in the House is working on a similar proposal. Last week in Charlotte, N.C., most members of the Republican National Committee agreed that the GOP must improve its tone and message on immigration. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, an influential party member, used an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal to urge the nation to "seize the moment" on bipartisan reform.
Yet the politics of immigration remain perilous for any Republican. The GOP establishment runs the risk of alienating passionate supporters of hard-line immigration policies. Despite Rubio's well-received outreach to influential conservatives like radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, opposition already is forming.
"Rubio's bill is nothing but amnesty," wrote conservative columnist Ann Coulter, referring to it as "a wolf in wolf's clothing."
Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana told radio host Laura Ingraham on Wednesday that his Republican colleague was "amazingly naive on this issue. This is the same old formula that we've dealt with before."
The set of principles agreed to by the four Democratic and four Republican senators - the Republicans are Rubio, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona - would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But that pathway would be contingent on securing the border and tracking people living in the U.S. on visas. It also would include changes to the legal immigration system, the noncitizen or "guest" worker programs and requirements for employer verification of immigration status.
Rubio, the son of Cuban-American immigrants, has argued that the system is broken and amounts to a de facto amnesty, with millions of people living in the U.S. without any chance of gaining legal status.
His proposal would include a number of triggers before illegal immigrants could apply for a green card. They would need to register with the federal government and pay back taxes and fines to qualify for a work permit. They would be ineligible for any federal benefits and would need to begin a long process of earning their citizenship - essentially getting in the back of the line.
"We have to deal with it in a way that's compassionate but also responsible," Rubio said in an interview with Fox News host Bill O'Reilly.
Republicans have tried this before. In 2007, Republicans led by McCain tried and failed to adopt comprehensive immigration reform under President George W. Bush. In the years since, Democratic efforts to pass the DREAM Act, which would offer citizenship to young illegal immigrants who were brought into the country by their parents, failed to pass muster.
During the 2012 presidential primary campaign, Republican Mitt Romney opposed the DREAM - Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors - Act and emphasized his support for a border fence and a policy he described as "self-deportation." The hard-line approach may have helped Romney fend off Republican challengers but those positions later hurt him with Latinos in the general election against President Barack Obama.
Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last fall compared with 27 percent for Romney, the worst showing by a Republican presidential candidate among Latinos since 1996. Latino voters accounted for 10 percent of the electorate and their numbers are growing, particularly in swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and Florida.
That new reality has led the GOP establishment to embrace immigration reform as a way to reintroduce its candidates to Latinos and eliminate a wedge issue before the next presidential race. Some Republicans have formed a super political action committee, called Republicans for Immigration Reform, to provide money and political cover to pro-reform GOP lawmakers.
"A lot of Hispanics don't feel welcome and we need to change that," said Ricardo Aponte, executive director of the Puerto Rico GOP.
The sentiment reflects a shift among Republicans. More than 6 in 10 Americans now favor allowing illegal immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted earlier this month. A slim majority of Republicans - 53 percent - favor the change, a significant increase from 2010. Seventy-two percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents like the idea.
But Republicans who support the changes risk primary challenges and the ire of some conservatives who say an immigration overhaul will take jobs away from citizens at a time of high unemployment. Others say it comes at the expense of other issues like preserving gun rights and taming the federal debt.
"Until the borders are secure, I think all this other chatter is a waste of time," said Tea Party Express Chair Amy Kremer. "Conservatives are not happy."
Rubio's most conservative supporters are sticking by him - for now. Everett Wilkinson, who leads a Florida chapter of the Liberty Federation, said many tea party activists he's spoken with are concerned that the Senate plan could "turn into an amnesty bill" and be "extremely unfair for people who are following the rules." But he expressed confidence that Rubio would jump off if the bill turns into that.
Republican leaders already have outlined an escape plan should they need to distance themselves from the immigration overhaul. Rubio said he would support legislation outlining a path to legal status only if it first emphasized enforcement and border security. As for the political risks, he said there are more important things at stake.
"I haven't done a political analysis of this, guys," Rubio told reporters Thursday. "I just think this country has a problem and we have to address it once and for all and if we don't fix it, it's going to get worse."