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National Politics|By Amy Walter, March 5, 2014

When it comes to 2016, the media is fixated on Bridge-gate, Benghazi, and Bush (Jeb). Left out of the picture is the man that many assumed would be the frontrunner by now, Sen. Marco Rubio. The CW says that Rubio's star has been dimmed (perhaps irreversibly so) by his championing of comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

That way of thinking assumes that Rubio--and this issue--will remain fixed for the next two years. It's clear Rubio isn't standing still. As many in the media have started to document, the peripatetic freshman has been busy building a robust domestic and foreign policy portfolio and remains a top guest at GOP fundraising events.

Now the question is how the issue of immigration reform will play in 2015-16.

When looking at the top-line poll numbers, it's hard not to conclude that immigration will be a liability for Rubio. In the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, a whopping 60 percent of Republicans said that they would be "less likely" to vote for a candidate who supports "a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants." When asked how toxic this issue could be in a 2016 primary, a top GOP pollster told me that "immigration is currently a third rail issue in a GOP primary. Not sure how it will no longer be one in 2015-16."

However, Republican strategists who support immigration reform argue that these polls fail to capture the full range of attitudes among GOP primary voters on this issue. One strategist who has been actively polling on this issue, contends that there are "lots of misperceptions out there about GOP attitudes on immigration. There's much more nuance than simply 'no amnesty.' Hard core immigration opponents are small minority of primary voters, and those voters will have multiple candidates to choose from in the primary field. Beyond that core, Rubio's immigration positions are highly defensible, and for some are even attractive."

Lost in the obsession over immigration, however, is Rubio's most important attribute: his ability to help the GOP bridge their gaping "empathy gap."

What's more, Republicans, tired of losing presidential elections, may be more forgiving of this issue in 2016 than they have been previously. Those inside the GOP establishment (like the RNC and many big-money donors) recognize the demographic challenges facing the party. Primary voters are more skeptical, but they may be more open to it after three years of push from the top. Given how badly Romney's move to the right on immigration backfired in 2012 (remember that whole "self-deportation" thing), should make serious GOP opponents wary of over-the-top attacks. Furthermore, many, if not most of the Republicans sharing the stage with Rubio will be on record supporting pro-reform positions, making it harder for them to get a clean "kill" on the issue.

For his part, Rubio is trying to not to let immigration define him. Politico's Manu Raju outlined Rubio's move to shore up his standing among conservatives post-immigration reform, writing that "Rubio is seeking to rehabilitate his image with much of the GOP base by falling back on his staunch conservative ideology while engaging in a calculated effort to broaden his domestic and foreign policy portfolio."

In recent days Rubio has argued for a more muscular American response to the events in Ukraine and Venezuela. He made conservatives swoon with an acidic response to Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-IA) views on Cuba from the Senate floor.

But, while Rubio's voting record (and some of his rhetoric) has been as conservative as folks like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, he doesn't get slapped with the "extreme" label. For as much as the immigration label may hurt him in a primary, it does help to insulate him in a general election. After all, one GOP strategist said to me, it'll be hard for Democrats to label him a "cray intolerant right winger" if he's also portrayed in the media as a "leading voice for immigration reform."

To be sure, Rubio has other potential liabilities beyond immigration. His profession as U.S. Senator is only slightly more popular than that of a communicable disease. Despite his impressive 2010 victory, he has not been seriously "vetted" at the national stage. And, at 42 years old, with less than four years in Congress under his belt, he'll be challenged on the experience issue.

Lost in the obsession over immigration, however, is Rubio's most important attribute: his ability to help the GOP bridge their gaping "empathy gap." Republicans' demographic problem is rooted in its image as the party of privilege. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 68 percent of Americans found the GOP to be "out of touch" with "the concerns of most people in the United States today."

Rubio has a Bill Clinton-like ability to connect as a "regular guy," who can "feel your pain." His middle/working class upbringing gives him an ability to genuinely connect with those who are part of the "47%." Talk to him about a policy issue and he'll weave in stories about how it effects the single mom who lives in his neighborhood or the parents at his children's Miami school. He has a Mike Huckabee populist appeal with the conservative fiscal profile of Paul Ryan.

At the end of the day, Rubio's immigration position may indeed be a bridge too far for GOP primary voters. But, there is little doubt that he should be considered a serious--and strong--contender for 2016.