PANAMA CITY (FloridaToday.com) - On a recent swing through the most conservative parts of his state, Sen. Marco Rubio told a packed banquet hall that major policy issues were threatening the American dream: taxes, regulations - and, above all, President Barack Obama's health care law.
But all Doc Washburn wanted to know about was immigration.
The local radio talk-show host asked the Republican senator why he had worked with Democrats on legislation that would give the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally an eventual path to citizenship.
"We know you, and we've always loved you," Washburn said, "and yet you're pushing this and it's a real problem for us."
The exchange - and Rubio's reluctance to raise the issue after spending months advocating for comprehensive immigration reform - underscore why the potential presidential candidate has undertaken a sort of image-rehabilitation tour.
Rubio's name can now elicit boos and catcalls at rallies.
The senator acknowledges the fallout. He told Republicans in Panama City, "Politically, it has not been a pleasant experience, to say the least." But his aides insist that his pivot to health care is driven by policy, not politics.
On a six-city, three-day swing through North Florida last week, Rubio emphasized his opposition to funding the health care law and barely mentioned immigration. In a 35-minute speech to the Rotary Club of Jacksonville, he devoted just one minute to the reform legislation he helped shepherd through the Senate.
The tour came as two of Rubio's fellow senators - and potential presidential rivals - appear to be building strength. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky also are pushing to defund the health care law.
Political and budget analysts say the push to neuter "Obamacare" has little chance of success: Leading congressional Republicans have openly rejected the strategy, fearing a repeat of 1995, when the GOP forced a government shutdown over spending cuts and resuscitated President Bill Clinton's political career.